This Blog post has been written by Dr. Olajumoke Popoola, a wonderful friend and life-saver.
My alarm goes off at 6 am and I try not to snooze, reminding myself of the impending traffic ahead of me, and how every 5 minutes delay translates to 15 minutes extra on the road! I’m up, ready and out and manage to drive into work at 7:30 am. I’m straight in the lab, to check up on my “babies” (patient-derived tumour cells used for drug efficacy evaluation) and re-feed them, before going back into the office to catch up on emails and any ‘administrative’ or desk-bound task I have to attend to that day. Have you guessed my occupation yet? No? Well, I am a cancer research scientist, specialising in the development of novel drugs that can be recommended as clinical candidates for the management and treatment of cancer.
“Wow!” I hear you say; “That must be tough!” Well, it is tough – but not in the way you are thinking. It is tough because every day we strive to get closer to finding a “super-drug” that will cure cancer and everyday we go home thinking, “not today – maybe tomorrow?” Sometimes we are lucky and we chip off a bit of the problem, by finding a drug that works on sub-types of cancer that haven’t already been addressed (as in the case of the drug Abiraterone, used to treat advance-stage hormone-resistant prostate cancer), but when I walk down the corridor of the cancer hospital on my work premises, I am reminded that this disease is still affecting many people, young and old, despite all what clinicians and researchers are throwing at it! We are still behind this “monster” of a disease! In the same breath, my resolve and dedication are even stronger and I vow to do more than I did yesterday. This is what keeps me ticking, and what makes me appreciate the job I have to do, on a daily basis.
I came into the cancer research field solely to help find a cure for the disease that has claimed numerous amounts of my immediate and distant relatives and friends. I channelled all the hurt and pain of losing them into firming my resolve to fight the disease as best as I can, in my own little way. This drove me to switch track from a medical microbiology background to a molecular cancer biology career.
How much progress have we made since I joined the bandwagon 12 years ago? A lot! We can now sequence an entire human genome in a matter of hours instead of months, for a tiny fraction of what it cost 10 years ago. We can now use precision medicine and targeted therapy to tailor cancer management and treatment to the individual patient, based on their tumour profile, as against using a “blanket/umbrella” treatment based on historical success of past cohort of patients. We now have technology that allows us to engineer the cells in a patient’s immune system to fight cancer even more efficiently. We can capture, identify and analyse circulating tumour cells and circulating tumour DNA, which tells us how any solid tumour is developing and how it is responding to treatment, enabling us to intervene and prevent relapse sooner rather than later.
We have computer algorithms and software that can predict treatment success, based on extensive genetic profiling and collated experimental evidence. Ultimately, with technologies and innovations like genome editing, there is a chance of a disease-free future for all. However, this is still in its infancy and several studies are underway to demonstrate its success in successfully removing disease-causing genes. For now, we will focus on doing our best to find better drugs and advances in cancer research that will positively impact the existing cohort of patients and, perhaps one day, prevent the occurrence of the disease completely.
As we recognize the month of October as breast cancer awareness month, let us all be more breast-aware and play our part in self-examination and reporting any anomalies we observe. We know our “boobies” best so we are the best “doctors” of our own selves, most capable of spotting any unusual signs. Always remember, the best cure for cancer is early detection! At the early stages (A), removal of local tumour is almost always successful, leading to recurrence-free survival of the patient. Once the tumour cells grow to a larger mass and begin to disseminate into the blood stream (B), homing to other parts of the body is almost inevitable. The cells migrate and invade other organs (C), arrest the new site and begin to “put their stamp” there (D) – they then thrive and start to build up as new mass in the secondary organ (E), eventually forming a secondary tumour (F). This is almost always incurable and only solution is improving quality of life for the patient, for as long as possible.
Chaffer CL, et al. Science. 2011. 331(6024): 1559-64
Let’s not think that breast cancer affects only women – men can be affected too! About 5% of breast cancer incidences are reported in men! So we all need to be proactive in ensuring that we give ourselves the best chance of treatment success, should we ever find ourselves in that ugly (but totally possible) scenario? How do we examine ourselves for anomalies? This is a short guide on how to self-examine our breasts – hope you find it useful!
Remember, health is wealth! Lets all play our part in defeating cancer.
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