When a Breast-Cancer Researcher Becomes the Patient

For one scientist, studying cancer suddenly got very personal.

Kristi Egland speaks at an independent TED event in Sioux Falls, S.D. (YouTube)

Dr. Kristi Egland's working relationship with breast cancer began long before her personal one: She studied the genetics of breast cancer in her laboratory, as she does today. A molecular biologist originally working on leukemia and lymphoma, Egland realized that the same technologies used to study those cancers could be applied to breast cancer. She made the leap and never looked back.

Her personal relationship with breast cancer began five years ago, when her right breast did not return to its normal size after she finished breastfeeding her son. "Since I study breast cancer in the laboratory," she says, "I had wondered what it would be like to have cancer. Would it hurt? Would I know I had it? Would I be able to feel a lump? I figured that if I did acquire breast cancer, I would detect it early because of my awareness."

In fact, her diagnosis did not come particularly early on. She describes the feeling when she first discovered the swelling: "I felt a deep, empty bit in my stomach. Although I was not in pain or feeling sick, I knew something was terribly wrong. I felt like my body was deceiving me." The appointment with the radiologist after her mammogram was even more sobering. "When I watched the image of my breast with the large tumor mass show up on the screen, life stopped. I was not even sure how I should react to the news that I had breast cancer. Should I cry, be brave or identify other possible causes of the mass? My diagnosis was a triple negative invasive breast cancer with lymph node involvement."

This form of cancer is an aggressive one without targeted therapies. Egland and her doctors opted for double mastectomy, and the days leading up to the surgery were some of the scariest of her life: "I wanted the day of my surgery to come so badly. I wanted the tumor out of my body and in my lab so I could conquer it." Once healed from the surgery, she underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments.

Egland says that dealing with the fact that she of all people had been affected by breast cancer was not easy in the beginning. "I was 37 years old with no history of breast cancer in my family, yet I was diagnosed. During chemotherapy treatments I used to ask, 'Why me?'"

When Egland first began the treatments, she felt self-conscious about the fact that she was suddenly in this role. "When I was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, I was embarrassed. I felt like I had the words 'breast cancer' written on my forehead." But as treatment wore on, she began to realize that she didn't get cancer because she'd done something wrong: She got it because her breasts were made of cells - and sometimes cells get mutated. "Cells are not perfect," Egland says, "and sometimes processes go wrong at the molecular level. I like to call it bad luck. If the right combination of mistakes is made in the genome of a cell, the cell becomes cancer. I was not being targeted by God or being punished for some misdeed that I had done in the past. I was the unlucky one in the statistic one in eight women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime."

Presented by

Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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