It’s Complicated

I began my career in research in October 2009 after graduating with a B.S. in Biotechnology. I started out in genetics but my end game was always cancer research. After 6 years in Genetics and two lab changes due to funding issues I found myself in a cancer biology lab in 2015.

My motivation for cancer research was my mom’s breast cancer diagnosis in November 2000 as well as my grandparents. 3 out 4 had been diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime.

The lab’s focus is EHE (epithelioid hemangioendothelioma) which is a very rare cancer and GIST (gastrointestinal stromal tumor) and finding targeted drugs for these cancers. Since joining the lab I have attended quite a few seminars and listened to people speak about their research. But it was never like today.

Today’s topic…ovarian cancer. This is the first seminar I have attended about ovarian cancer and it was given by a guest speaker from Chicago. I am not required to attend these seminars but I chose to attend today.

Most seminars start the same. The basic information about the disease, number affected, number of deaths and then they get into mechanisms and their research. Today was no different. I have a stack of ovarian cancer research papers on my desk. It’s one of my coping mechanisms to just learn as much as I can. So it was slightly unexpected what happened when she spoke of the mortality rate for advanced stage patients. I wanted to jump out of my skin and a tear trickled down my cheek. The numbers weren’t shocking. I had read these numbers a million times.  But hearing this woman say it out loud…well I guess what it is…is that you hope you’re being dramatic. You hope that it’s not as scary as you think and that maybe you’re reading too much into it. So hearing a researcher in the field say it…I guess it just triggered something.

As the presentation continued she showed diagrams and actual pictures of patient tumors. On the diagram it had yellow circles to indicate the places the cancer spreads in advanced stage patients. I recognized the locations from mom’s CT scan before surgery in September. The actual pictures of patient tumors were intense and it’s pretty amazing that surgeons can remove as much as they do. It gave me a new perspective. It made me feel even more blessed that nearly 10 months later we still have her.

I hear people say a lot “why can’t we just cure cancer already?” I understand the frustration. I really do. And the only thing I can say is it’s complicated. There are so many mechanisms going on in the human body it’s insane. And with cancer it’s not one size fits all. For example with ovarian cancer, you have sub-types within ovarian cancer and sub-types within that. My mom doesn’t just have ovarian cancer. It’s High Grade Serous Carcinoma which is an epithelial ovarian cancer and she also has the BRCA2 mutation. So it’s hard to find a drug that can treat an entire patient population when people are such individuals.  A drug that works for most may not work for everyone or a drug that has been working for a while may stop.  This can happen when the cancer develops another mutation and then you need to find a drug to treat the new mutation.

Sitting through this presentation I had many thoughts.  At times I considered leaving but I was eager to hear if she spoke of any treatments that we hadn’t heard of or thought of.  I also felt like I needed to find a local lab that focuses on ovarian cancer research and join it ASAP.  And while I won’t be joining such a lab tomorrow  I do hope that’s where my career takes me.

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