Paying It Forward in Oncology: A Journey From Patient to Investigator

Oncology Fellows, September 2019, Volume 11, Issue 3

Kristin Anderson, PhD, shares her journey from patient to investigator.

Kristin Anderson, PhD

"Hello. Is this Kristen Anderson? This is the breast center calling with the results of your biopsy. I am so sorry to give you this news, but the results indicate that you have a malignant form of breast cancer, and we’re going to need you to come in to talk about a treatment plan. Can you come in today?”

I don’t remember much after this phone call, but I do remember crumbling to the floor in tears. Not the delicate misty tears some people experience at the climactic end of a tragic movie or at those commercials about animals being kept in squalid conditions, but the heaving, unable-to-breathe sobs of someone whose world has just collapsed. Shock, fear, denial, and overwhelming sadness hit me all at once.

I had just turned 28. I had just started my fourth year of graduate school studying immunology. I was so close to finishing my first scientific paper and starting my doctoral thesis. I was in the early stages of a new relationship that had real long-term potential.

I had way too much going on, both personally and professionally, to have cancer.

I fully recognize this will come as no surprise, but that’s not how cancer works. Cancer doesn’t care about hopes, dreams, goals, or commitments. Cancer just is. And although the impact it can have on a patient’s life is completely unpredictable, it’s a pretty safe assumption that the impact is going to be significant.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate. I was assigned a great medical team at the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center, a Comprehensive Cancer Center with an “outstanding” designation from the National Cancer Institute. Even though I had aggressive, triplenegative disease, driven in part by an inherited BRCA1 mutation, drugs had been discovered that showed great efficacy against my type of cancer. My graduate student health insurance covered almost every single bill. And my life was only partially put on hold: I went to chemotherapy appointments on Fridays, slept all weekend (and usually through Monday), then headed into the lab Tuesday through Thursday. Then the cycle would repeat.

My progress in the lab slowed immensely, and I was pretty much always exhausted. But I was able to keep showing up. Every week. For 6 whole months.

I cannot explain the motivation behind pushing myself that hard. Part of me chalks it up to equal parts perseverance and downright stubbornness. In retrospect, it’s more likely that I just needed something, anything, to help me feel as if I still had some control over my life. I think I needed to feel as though I was still making progress, however small, toward my goals. Perhaps this mind-set helped me feel I was going to live, to maintain hope when I was terrified by the possibility of death. Most weeks, I had the energy to do this without any issues. But some weeks I didn’t, and I am incredibly grateful for my caregivers, friends, and colleagues who recognized that some weeks were better than others and supported me through the entire ordeal.

After chemotherapy and surgery, I went back to school full time with a renewed passion to finish my degree. Even after weekly therapy was done, I encountered more setbacks. I tried to match my peers’ ability to work 14-hour days and memorize and regurgitate details from the (sometimes apparently random) primary literature. But my diminished stamina and the fog of chemo brain kept me from full success.

I recognize now that these self-imposed hurdles were ludicrous. Nonetheless, despite stumbling, I managed to publish 2 primary-author articles and graduate in a bit more than 5 years.

Disease free and PhD in hand, I faced another massive challenge: What did I want to study for the rest of my career? What did I want to do with my life? This is a huge decision for everyone, but a few years earlier, I hadn’t been sure I’d get the chance to even have a career to worry about.

I agonized over leaving Minnesota, which I knew was inevitable if I wanted to stay with my partner (which I did). My whole life up to that point was in Minnesota. My entire support network was in Minnesota—my family, my friends, my physicians. What would I do if my cancer came back?

Finally, I had an epiphany: The chemotherapeutic drugs I was given were discovered by investigators. As an investigator, I had an incredible opportunity to pay it forward, and I could not throw that away. Within 5 minutes, my future was decided. I was going to use my immunology training and expertise to study cancer immunotherapy.

Fortunately, I have an incredible network of colleagues who encouraged me to talk to Phil Greenberg, MD, an internationally recognized leader in the field of cancer immunotherapy and T-cell engineering. I’ve now been a postdoctoral research fellow with Dr Greenberg at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch) for about 5 years. Without any exaggeration, I think I have the best job ever.

My research involves engineering T cells to recognize and kill cancer. We focus on making effective therapies for tumors that have been notoriously hard to treat, like ovarian and pancreatic cancers. My team identifies obstacles that prevent T cells from effectively killing solid tumors, and then we use preclinical models to evaluate novel ways to effectively overcome those obstacles. Once we’ve found an approach that works in our models, we test it in human cells to see whether our approach can also work in patients. We now have several tactics with translational potential, which is incredibly exciting and fulfilling.

And research is not the only way I have found to pay it forward. My experience is a classic example of why early detection is critical. To share what I’ve learned with the community, I became an instructor for the Seattle Rivkin Center’s CanCan education program. CanCan provides free workshops on the signs and symptoms of breast and ovarian cancers and encourages community members to be proactive about their healthcare.

I also try every year to participate in at least 1 fund-raising event to support research. I regularly participate in Fred Hutch’s Obliteride, the Rivkin Center’s Summer Run, and the American Association for Cancer Research’s Runners for Research 5K. This summer, I am going to up it a notch. As part of a Climb to Fight Cancer team, I’m headed to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and help raise money to support cancer research at Fred Hutch. Because cancer is really hundreds of different diseases, and, even if successful, my own studies can help only a fraction of patients. By supporting other investigators, I hope to help many more.

Kristin Anderson, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.