Why Researchers Need Breast Cancer Advocates

By Brunhilde Felding-Habermann, PhD, Associate Professor, The Scripps Research Institute and Project LEAD® Faculty

Brunhilde Felding-Habermann works with an NBCC advocate at The Scripps Research Institute during a Project LEAD® field trip.

As with any other research, research on breast cancer can have very diverse overall goals, specific aims and study designs.  As generally in research, the selection of new research directions is naturally driven by our immediate findings and the discovery of how biological pathways are involved in processes that we study. In basic research, a noble goal is to identify new meaningful questions built on each answer we found. This strategy can lead to an accumulation of a large body of knowledge that enhances our overall understanding of biological mechanisms. This understanding might eventually help to innovate therapies against diseases that could involve the biological processes studied.

When I first set out to establish my own lab in academic research, my goal was to enhance our understanding of mechanisms that drive breast cancer metastasis. The very first research grant that I received was from the California Breast Cancer Research Program. This program made a huge difference for me, not only by allowing me to embark on my own research but also by connecting me with breast cancer advocacy.  This connection turned out to be of fundamental importance for me, everyone in my group, and the design of our research projects. The interaction with breast cancer advocates taught me and continues to teach me, essentially every day, why we do the work we do and for whom we search for new insight into what determines the onset and progression of breast cancer.  I learned that we cannot work purely for information seeking purposes only. I learned that we must develop our research strategies so that our projects have an immediate potential to break new ground toward significant improvement of breast cancer therapy. I became keenly aware that the mission of our work is to make a tangible difference for breast cancer patients now, and not in the far away future. And that we must strive to generate information and tools that will help women to avoid becoming breast cancer patients in the first place.

Another very important aspect of working with breast cancer advocates is hard to frame in words. Every time I meet with a breast cancer advocate or a group, I receive an indescribable boost of energy. Every one I met who decided to be an advocate, has enriched me and everyone in my group to reach high and work hard for them, their children, and everyone with or carrying a risk of breast cancer. The determination of advocates, and the reality message that hoping for better treatments is not an alternative because we live now, is empowering and transmits a clear message of responsibility that propels our work.

Working with students of Project LEAD® this year was fantastic. I wish to thank everyone in the group for their determination, power, and kindness. The sense that we are in this together, and that we can work together to end breast cancer is strong. Neither one of us can reach this goal alone. So, thank you for being there and for working with us.

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