Breast Cancer Awareness Month Feature. An Appreciation: Dr. Michele Carpenter, M.D.
Breast pain, a suspicious lump, or a shadow on a mammogram could mean breast cancer — or not. Meeting with a breast surgeon is often the first step. For the past 40 years, breast surgeon Michele Carpenter, M.D., has compassionately guided countless women through the uncertainty of a possible breast cancer diagnosis.
Much has changed in breast cancer detection and treatment over the decades since Dr. Carpenter completed her medical degree at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, and she has been part of it. During her internship and residency in general surgery at the Naval Hospital in San Diego, she participated in the clinical trials that ultimately showed lumpectomy could be just as effective as mastectomy for treating some breast tumors.
Those findings were game changing. This new treatment option preserved more breast tissue than mastectomy. That, in turn, led to the development of reconstructive plastic surgery procedures, including nipple-sparing techniques, for better cosmetic results.
As a result, many patients were faced with more choices than before: mastectomy or lumpectomy? And what about reconstructive breast surgery later? And those decisions had to made before surgery, while patients were still coming to terms with the shock of a breast cancer diagnosis.
Dr. Carpenter quickly realized patient communication and education would be as important as her skills in the operating room. She became passionate about educating her patients so they could make the best individual choices for themselves.
“I had to get to know the patient and what she was feeling,” Dr. Carpenter said. “Then I needed to educate her about her options, so when she came to a decision, she knew it was her own and built on information she could trust.”
After her training, Dr. Carpenter directed a breast health program at another hospital, where she expanded her educational focus to doctors, health care professionals and the public. In addition to treating patients, she taught clinical breast exam techniques and served in an advisory role for state and local early breast cancer detection initiatives.
Dr. Carpenter came to Orange County in 2002 and has directed the breast program at The Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment at Providence St. Joseph Hospital Orange since 2008. Here, she has continued her work in breast cancer research and education.
In 2012, Dr. Carpenter participated in a study that brought radiation treatment into the operating room. Today, she teaches those techniques, which have become an alternative to whole-breast radiation for some early stage breast tumors.
Most recently, Dr. Carpenter contributed a chapter, “New Technology for the Breast Surgeon,” to the February 2023 issue of Surgical Clinics of North America.
Throughout her career, Dr. Carpenter has been an active member of several medical organizations, including the American College of Surgeons Oncology Group and the American Society of Breast Surgeons. She’s tirelessly given of her time to talk to primary care physicians, nurses and the community about breast cancer and early detection, from genetics to survivorship.
Additionally, Dr. Carpenter has devoted her time to serve on several hospital committees, including surgery, oncology and quality. She was Chief of Staff for Providence St. Joseph Hospital from 2016 to 2017.
“Everything I have done to improve myself and educate others has been so patients could make better decisions for themselves,” she said.
But in August 2023, Dr. Carpenter transitioned to a new life chapter. She stepped back to take a part-time supervisory role with the breast program, while exploring new volunteer possibilities. She plans to support the Providence St. Joseph Hospital Foundation and Cancer Kinship, a peer-to-peer nonprofit organization started by one of her former patients. Additionally, she and her husband look forward to becoming grandparents and spending more time with their three grown daughters.
Undoubtedly, Dr. Carpenter’s life work has contributed to the earlier detection and better treatments that have greatly improved breast cancer survival over the last 40 years. Today, the U.S. has more survivors of breast cancer than any other type, except skin cancer.
“We cure most breast cancers today,” Dr. Carpenter said. “We are getting better with individualized care, and now we only use chemotherapy if we know the patient will benefit from it. This is why each patient must understand her individual cancer and options.”