My mom’s initial diagnosis in 2008 came just six months after I had a radical hysterectomy for a rare form of cancer. Having completed postdoctoral training in cancer biology in 2006, my anxiety levels were through the roof. I remembered quite well the molecular biology horror show that is a cancer cell. Although my lymph nodes had come back clear and I didn’t require additional therapy beyond surgery, I worried about the clonal theory — that just one cell might be hiding somewhere and would later result in a recurrence. My cancer was stage IB, and all of my doctors assured me the chance of a recurrence was extremely remote.
Following her breast cancer diagnosis, I assured my mom she would be fine. There are targeted therapies for breast cancer, I told her. If you have to have cancer, this is the kind you want, I tried to comfort her. The TNBC diagnosis came a month later. I had never heard of it. There was no targeted therapy.
Her oncologist was surprised at the brain metastasis articles I found in PubMed, because the prevailing understanding at the time was that Her2neu-positive tumors were the “worst” type of breast cancer. My mom received the neoadjuvant standard-of-care treatment at the time: doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide and paclitaxel.
By the time she had a brain MRI, it was too late. My mom went on hospice toward the end of August 2008 and died a short time later.
Cancer hit close to home once again in summer 2017 with my sister’s diagnosis of a rare form of uterine cancer. I went to the literature to check the treatments she was being offered, and I reached out to my former colleagues in cancer research and my wider network from my own training period.
As scientists, this is something we can help our friends and family with. For the lay public, the difference between a Google search and a PubMed search may mean the difference between spiraling into a morass of misinformation on nonmedical and nonscientific websites versus accessing the most recent state-of-the-art findings at the forefront of medical research.
As a principal investigator of a biomedical research lab, I emphasize the importance of networking for the career development of my students and postdoctoral trainees. This was an important part of my own training, and although I never doubted the importance of my network for the advancement of my career, I never imagined how important that network would become in terms of its lifesaving potential.
This excerpt ran in the Summer 2019 issue of the Doctor Gator newsletter.