In June of 1999, I began graduate school at Georgetown University in the Tumor Biology program, and I quickly found the lab where I would spend the next five years doing breast cancer research. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to apply for a predoctoral training award from the DoD Breast Cancer Research Program, and I received the award as the principal investigator in 2001. During my time at Georgetown, I benefitted from training in a comprehensive cancer center where I made time each week to attend the Clinical Breast Cancer Conference. Though we were invited, I was one of the few academics who joined the medical, surgical, and radiological oncologists and pathologists as they discussed special or difficult clinical cases. This weekly meeting served as a touchstone, reminding me of the importance of considering the patient's perspective in my own academic research.
After completing my dissertation, I left the lab, choosing to stay at home with my children. As my youngest was heading to kindergarten, I began to contemplate how I could pursue a career building on my background in breast cancer research. Instead of heading back to a lab, I wanted to find a way to help women facing a diagnosis of breast cancer better understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Instead, I ended up in a breast surgeon's office with a lump of my own at only 35 years old. I was diagnosed with early stage, but very aggressive, triple-negative breast cancer. I found myself relying on things I'd learned years before, and I was fortunate to understand the science of breast cancer well enough to have complete confidence in my medical team and the treatment course they prescribed.
Eight rounds of chemo were followed by a bilateral mastectomy and the best possible outcome: a pathologic complete response. Almost two and a half years later, I still have the enviable status of "NED--" no evidence of disease, nearly out of the window when risk of recurrence is so high for triple-negative breast cancer patients. I have shared my story countless times, with newly diagnosed friends of friends over coffee or on the phone, with new "breast cancer friends" in support groups, and even with large audiences as an invited speaker or guest contributor. Now that I have not only the rigorous training of a breast cancer researcher but also the experience of one who has been treated for the disease, I have had the opportunity to provide a patient's perspective to researchers as they design their studies. Shortly after my treatment ended, I became involved with the Georgetown Breast Cancer Advocates, a diverse group of well-educated breast cancer advocates who work with researchers at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. Representing the voice of the patient at Georgetown, as part of the Scientists-Survivors Program at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting, and even on an American Society of Clinical Oncology guidelines panel is a responsibility that I don't take lightly.
It has been a distinct honor to serve as a consumer reviewer for the DoD Breast Cancer Research Program, the very agency instrumental in my own training years ago. I have been so impressed by not only the intelligence of the researchers and clinicians who serve as scientific reviewers, but by their genuine respect for the perspective of the consumer reviewers. They gently teach us when we don't understand, and they listen intently as we share relevant patient experiences. As a scientist, it is rewarding to be a part of a funding mechanism that solicits high-risk/high-reward proposals and invests in early career investigators. But as a patient, I know that the urgency for advancing the science is so much more than merely an intellectual pursuit. I am heartened that there are so many bright minds working with such dedication to help me and countless others live longer and better in the face of a breast cancer diagnosis.
Last updated Wednesday, January 27, 2016