Breast Cancer From Bench to My Own Bedside

Tables Turned

From the Laboratory Bench to My Own Bedside

Originally Published in VICC Momentum September 23, 2020 | Dana Brantley-Sieders, PhD

Note: This is an essay I wrote last summer. Though my journey continues thanks to residual disease and a mastectomy after I submitted the essay, the spirit and information in the essay hold true. I have hope. And I’m still working hard to fight cancer inside the laboratory and out in the wider world.

I had been studying breast cancer for more than 20 years when I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma. My professional life was filled with hours of watching tumor cells grow and spread on plastic dishes, marveling as they branched and blebbed in three-dimensional matrices, monitoring the size of lumps from spontaneous or transplanted breast tumor tissue in experimental mouse models, and if I was lucky, watching their growth slow or even seeing them shrink when a new experimental therapeutic worked in pre-clinical testing.

Over the years, family and friends had come to me for information, reassurance and comfort in the face of their diagnoses. I’d lost a close cousin to the ravages of aggressive breast cancer. She was only 37 years old.

When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I emptied her surgical drains after her double mastectomy, caring for her with a toddler clinging to my leg and a baby balanced on my hip. I brought meals to a close friend who was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, visiting with her as she endured chemotherapy, surgery, reconstruction, and finding her new normal while our pre-teen daughters hovered in the background, their infectious laughter a balm to the devastation wrought by the big “C.”

After all of this, I thought I knew breast cancer. Then it kicked me in my left breast and flung me, bleeding, on the curb of uncertainty. Turns out, I had a lot to learn.

When Brent Rexer, MD, my medical oncologist, walked in to my first appointment at the Vanderbilt Breast Center, he greeted me with kindness and a wry smile. “It’s good to see you again, though I wish it was under better circumstances.” I’d known Brent for years. He and his wife were classmates of mine in graduate school, and we’d crossed paths at research seminars in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. I’d crossed paths with many of the clinicians and providers who would become a part of my care team. I was lucky. I knew I was in great hands.

When I got cancer, I came home.

What did I learn from the laboratory bench to my own bedside? For starters, I learned that nothing, not even a career spent tackling this disease, can prepare you for your own diagnosis. I was as shocked, devastated, and numb as any woman who hears those three terrible words — you have cancer.

I learned that radiologists save lives. The radiologist who spotted the suspicious spot on a routine mammogram and later during an ultrasound examination has over 30 years of experience in the field. Because I’m a geek, I always ask to see what’s going on in any exam. I’m “that patient,” the one who’ll ask if I can look at the computer screen after a boob squeeze, à la mammography, and in the middle of having the goo-covered wand gliding over my exposed boob during an ultrasound. When I had the chance to look at my tumor and a previously detected benign lesion side by side, I realized that this radiologist’s years of training and sharp eyes (that could tell the difference between two grainy spots on an ultrasound that looked the same to me) caught one tumor before it could become immediately life threatening. We later learned that I had two tumors of the same subtype in the same breast, which is pretty rare. But we would not have caught the smaller one, which was actually growing faster, had my radiologist not spotted the larger mass.

I learned that I had the option of saving most of my breast tissue. Thanks to years of study following outcomes of patients who chose lumpectomy and those who chose mastectomy as surgical options, we know that choosing breast conserving surgery does not increase a woman’s risk for distant recurrence. There is an increased risk for local recurrence, but that can be mitigated with radiation therapy. I was fortunate enough to be a good candidate for partial mastectomy followed by oncoplastic reconstruction, which is essentially a breast reduction and lift. I’m not going to lie – it’s like being 18 again. I’m perky! Better still, it preserved sensation in my breast skin and nipples, and the recovery time was much shorter than with a mastectomy. Note: there are no wrong choices, only informed choices. The decision to keep or remove one or both breasts after a cancer diagnosis is a deeply personal one. Each individual patient must consider the options, the benefits and risks, and decide what is right for her. This was the best decision for me, and I’m glad I was a good candidate for this surgical option.

I learned that surgeons are brilliant, and by working together, they can give you back much of what you lost. My surgical team, including Ingrid Mezoely, MD, and Galen Perdikis, MD, worked together on a plan that allowed Dr. Mezoely to remove my tumors and Dr. Perdikis to perform oncoplastic reconstruction just after. A year and a half later, I am pleased with the result, like the way I look and feel, and while I’ll never be the same as B.C. (before cancer), my new normal is better than I ever imagined.

I learned that radiation therapists are some of the nicest, funniest people on the planet. My go-to coping mechanism is humor. When I came in for a dry run prior to my first radiation therapy, the technician placed several markers on my left breast in order to properly align the beam for more precise targeting of the area where the tumors were removed while minimizing potential damage to my heart and lungs. The shiny markers formed a cute little circular pattern, so I joked that we could make it into a pastie. All I need would be some glitter and a tassel. We both cracked up, and I was able to relax, hold my breath for the designated time, and get prepared for my treatment course. During those visits, I talked with the therapists and Bapsi Chakravarthy, MD, about topics big and small — kids, work, life, research, politics, favorite books and television shows, and all manner of topics that made the discomfort during the last weeks of treatment much more bearable.

I learned the depths of compassion and generosity of my colleagues, both in the laboratory setting and in the clinic. Disclosing a cancer diagnosis to your employer and co-workers can be frightening. Will you be at risk for losing your job (a reality for too many Americans)? Will your colleagues see you and treat you differently? Will moving forward be awkward, with colleagues feeling uncomfortable and at a loss for words? I was lucky and found support and comfort, with offers to help keep the research in my laboratory going while I was out on medical leave, with encouragement, and with the honor of serving as a reminder of what all of us in cancer research work for — helping patients diagnosed with cancer survive and thrive.

I learned that, having been on both the research side and patient side of the breast cancer experience, I have a unique perspective and the opportunity to help people outside of the laboratory. Scientists are very good at communicating with one another within the research community, but I believe we need to expand our efforts to communicate with the public. After all, most of us are funded by the National Institutes of Health, which is in turn supported by tax dollars. I feel an obligation to be able to explain my work and why it’s important to anyone who asks, be it my 11-year-old son or a person sitting next to me at the airport. I have a new mission: to be an advocate for science and bring science to the public, particularly when it comes to breast cancer. Sadly, we live in an age of fake news and pseudoscience, made worse by the pervasive anti-intellectual and anti-science political culture gripping the United States and much of the world. The internet and social media are plagued by scammers selling “alternative medicine” and woo woo “cures” for cancer. Knowledge is power, and lack thereof can be deadly. I can lend my voice to fighting myths and scams for the public good through speaking, blogging and writing.

I learned that there will be good days and bad days, and that it’s OK to seek help. My prognosis is great, but my type of breast cancer can recur years or decades after surgery and treatments are complete. That thought often keeps me up and night and serves as a source of worry. Shortly after my diagnosis, I worked to the point of exhaustion in the lab, at home, and on my side gig, staying up late in the name of productivity and maximizing creativity, but I wasn’t fooling anyone. I was terrified. After a year and a half of ups and downs, I acknowledged that I was not fine, and that I needed help in the form of therapy. I’m glad I did. Tackling my fears and anxieties head on has helped me be my best self, accept my new normal as a cancer survivor and focus on living the life I have with joy and purpose. And when I go back into the well of despair, as many survivors do, I now have the tools to climb back out and get back on track, which is very empowering.

Finally, I learned that I’m still learning. I have the best job as a researcher in that I get to be a lifelong learner. So many strides have been made since I entered the field, when Herceptin was first developed for HER2-positive breast cancer. Now, we have so many new tools in diagnostics and prognostics (3D mammography and OncoType DX testing), treatments (aromatase inhibitors, CDK inhibitors, and immune therapy), and amazing new treatments on the horizon. We still have so much work to do, but we are making a difference, and I am privileged to be a part of that process.

I don’t feel pretty, and that’s okay

Ugly witch – disguise – I kinda want one for Halloween!

So I’m 5 months out from my mastectomy, waiting for reconstruction of my left breast, and I feel fugly. Not just ugly, but the kind of grotesque that can only come from looking in the mirror and STILL being shocked to see one nipple hanging significantly higher than the other. When I’m clothed it’s slightly better. I can shove my fake boob into my bra and sort of look balanced.

I say “sort of” because the damned insert moves around and is slightly bigger than my intact right boob, so I have to stuff the other freakin’ side with inserts from sports bras, which also move around, and I swear I can tell that I’m lopsided when I look at recent photos.

My family assures me that no one else notices, and maybe they’re right, but I notice, and it makes me self-conscious. It sucks. I also feel old. I’m coming up on my 48th birthday, which technically means I’m still middle-aged. But between the breast cancer diagnosis three years ago, two surgeries, radiation, and three years in medically-induced menopause plus estrogen suppression, I swear I’ve aged ten years.

Am I grateful to be alive? You bet! Do I feel lucky that my prognosis is great? Of course! Is every day a gift? Abso-fucking-lutely! But there are days when cancer and all that comes with it crashes down on me and I get sad, tired, and pissed off about what the big C has done to me.

I’m not alone. If you’re out there feeling the same way, you aren’t alone. We are strong. We are survivors. But we are also human and we will have bad days. And that’s okay. We can’t avoid them, and we have to endure them, but we don’t have to get sucked into the pit of despair. Here are some coping strategies I’ve found helpful. Maybe they’ll help you.

Put on some cute clothes

Happy plus size women shopping – I grabbed this one from Deposit Photos for the description alone!

Fall is here, and that means it’s time to pull out those fuzzy sweaters, leggings, boots, and cute scarves. I’m self conscious about my neck and my cleavage, so scarves have REALLY helped. I’m not going out as much thanks to Covid, but I’ve made it a point, at least once a week, to put on real clothes (instead of the athleisure wear I’ve been rocking since work-from-home became a thing). I choose colors that make me feel bright and shiny, and select from outfits that I’ve been complimented on before. It helps! Those are the days when I can focus more on what I like about my body and face rather than what I don’t like. Have fun, wear what makes YOU feel beautiful, and don’t worry about the folks who say women of a certain age/weight/body type shouldn’t wear certain clothing. The only thing a woman should NEVER wear is the weight of other people’s expectations.

Have Fun with Makeup

My amazing teen and me with makeup!

I’ve always been pretty basic when it comes to makeup. Foundation, blush, concealer on the blemishes, and boom – done! Fortunately, I have a teen who is super creative, into cosplay, and LOVES makeup. Thanks to her, I’ve upped my makeup game and it has helped me feel pretty. A lovely sales associate at Sephora taught me how to contour, another fantastic salesperson at Ulta recommended primer and an eyeshadow pallet that I LOVE – dramatic eyes really work in the era of masks – and my teen routinely helps me out with the eye makeup game. The old barn does look better with some fresh paint!

Simple Self Care

Anything from drugstore face masks to bathbombs to nice-smelling lotion can be cheap ways to pamper yourself when you’re feeling like a wart on the ass end of a troll. Have a soak, wash your hair (especially if it’s been daaaaaaaaays), brush your teeth, put on some perfume, and treat yourself like the absolute fucking QUEEN you are. You are worth it.

Take a Freakin’ Selfie and Send it To Your Friends

I stole this one from “Everything is Awful and I’m Not Okay,” which I totally recommend you print out and post to your bedroom door. Take a selfie, send it to your friends and/or put it on social media – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, hell, make a TikTok video. Speaking of TikTok, get on there and find yourself some support from Your Fairy Godmother @starr_mcqeen_, Your Non Binary Uncle @thaddeusshafer, and the aggressively supportive @angryreactions. They don’t think you are pretty, precious, loved, and worthy, and awesome, they KNOW it and they’ll tell you. Your friends and social contacts will tell you you’re pretty, and you’ll believe them and feel better.

Send ME a selfie and I’ll tell you how pretty you are!

Got any other tips? Let me know. I can use all the help I can get, and I’ll share the love!

Nice Going, AACR (Salt on the Wound)

I didn’t plan on writing two blog posts in one day, but here we are. Because of my second diagnosis with breast cancer, I have to adjust my life and schedule to accommodate surgery, reconstruction, and other treatments. I had planned to attend the annual American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting in April so I could present my research on molecular regulation of breast cancer bone metastasis, network with colleagues, patients, survivors, and policy makers, and learn about the latest advances in the field.

Cancer has robbed me of that opportunity.

Since I’d already registered, I contacted AACR to let them know what was going on and to cancel my registration. Here’s what I wrote:

Short, sweet, to the point. I didn’t expect a reply until next week, but, to my surprise (and based on the tone of the reply, horror), I received a reply within a few hours:

So, after writing the American Association for CANCER Research to let them know that I cannot attend the meeting because I have CANCER, that’s the stone cold, insensitive, shitty reply I received. I could’ve let it slide, but, as I note in my response, I’m soooooooo done with bullshit at this point.

Here’s my reply (copied and pasted since it’s too long for a screenshot):

Dear David,


Wow. Just wow.


Two years ago, I would have just let this slide, been “nice” and “quiet” without causing trouble, like all women are taught to do. But two years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And, as of last week, my breast cancer is back. As such, I have neither the time nor the energy for bovine fecal material. That the current bovine fecal material is coming from the American Association for Cancer Research, an organization I’ve supported since my days as a graduate student (member 1998-present), just after a second diagnosis with breast cancer, makes it all the more horrible.


As I noted in my request, I have cancer. I will likely be undergoing surgery for the third time during the annual conference, which means cancer has cheated me of the opportunity to present my own research findings on breast cancer metastasis to my peers. Cancer will also steal time from my research, my family, my friends, and my life. 
So, in response to, “Please let us know if you still wish to cancel your registration,” um, yeah. Did you think I’d suddenly change my mind, or that my cancer would suddenly be all better so I can totally go to the meeting – my bad? What kind of stupid, insensitive question is that? Seriously, I have people who despise me who wouldn’t be that stone cold. Do you need proof of my diagnosis? I have CDs full of scans from my six biopsies and two lumpectomies. Do I need a doctor’s note? You can check out my blog where I’ve been documenting my story in an effort to let patients going through the same struggles that (a) they’re not alone, (b) knowledge is power so here are accessible data you can use to make informed healthcare decisions, and (c) to be a liaison between research and patients/survivors so the public understands how important our work is and so they’ll engage to help us better meet their needs. www.talkingtatas.com.

You’d best believe I’ll be blogging about the AACR responding to the news that I have cancer and cannot attend the annual meeting with it’ll cost you $125. No “I’m so sorry for what you’re going through.” No, “What can the AACR do to support you during this difficult time.” Just, “We can understand your concern.”


You can understand my concern, you say. With all due respect, no, unless you’ve had cancer, you absolutely, positively cannot understand even a fraction of my concerns. Unless you’ve been hit by the sledgehammer of shock upon hearing those three horrible words, you have cancer, unless you’ve had to tell your spouse, your children, and your mother that you’ve been diagnosed with a deadly disease, unless you’ve endured the pain of surgery and recovery, the burns and fatigue induced by radiation, the indignity of estrogen suppression therapies that forever change you and your relationship to your body, unless you’ve endured sleepless nights wondering if you’ll live for another 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, and if/when cancer might come back and kill you, you have NO IDEA about my concerns. That’s completely insensitive, condescending, and wrong on so many levels.


But please, by all means, take the $125. You certainly need it more than I do. I don’t need to think about insurance deductibles, medication, bills to support myself and my family. 

And one last thing – you don’t get to call me “Dana” in a response like the one you offered. It’s Dr. Brantley-Sieders to you.

A little consideration, human decency, and kindness can go a long way. Coldness, disregard, and insensitivity can, too. Badly done, AACR. Badly done.

Photo credit

And The Bottom Drops Out…

It’s been one of those days.

Last week, I had my 6th biopsy. I actually blogged (read: bitched) about it in a previous post. CNN version: when I went in for my routine mammogram, which turned into four separate boob squishes and an ultrasound, a spot showed up in my left boob – the one that had already developed two tumors (surgically removed) and had been irradiated. It was likely nothing, but since it was in the cancer boob, we went ahead and biopsied it.

It wasn’t nothing.

Bad grammar aside, once again (and near what was supposed to be my 2 year cancerversary), I got the call we all dread. It’s cancer. 6 mm invasive ductal carcinoma, ER+/PR+ (probably) HER2-, in the same breast that had been irradiated, and in the same body that’s been on estrogen blockers for nearly 2 years.

Once again, I’m numb, angry, scared, and filled with uncertainty. Invasive. How far has it spread? I should get a PET scan – what if it has metastasized? I’ll likely have a mastectomy at this point, one or both breasts, but what else? Will I need chemo? More radiation? A new drug cocktail?

Will I be alive next year? In two years? The statistics say yes, but what about five to ten years down the road?

Once again, I had to call family and friends with bad news, had to fall apart in my husband’s arms, had to tell my daughter. I still have to tell my son. I feel like I’ve failed. I’ve let them down. Should I have toughed it out with the aromatase inhibitors that made me so sore and achy that I could barely get out of my car, out of a chair, out of bed? Should I have gone for chemo in spite of my Oncotype DX results? Should I have just lopped off both breasts to begin with?

Rationally and objectively, no, I didn’t fail. Cancer is insidious, sly, and unpredictable. No one has a crystal ball. Based on the information we had at the time, breast conserving surgery made sense. I stand by that decision. I stand by my Oncotype DX results and decision to forgo chemo and opt for medically induced menopause and tamoxifen – because in order to live life, I needed to be able to get out of my car, out of chairs, and out of bed.

Here’s what I know: My odds are still good for survival. Losing one or both breasts is going to be painful, heartbreaking, and sad, but those are the cards I’ve been dealt and I will play them. I’ve been through this before, and years from now, I may go through it again, but I’m here now. I want to live. I want to watch my children grow and be there for them as they transition from incredible teens into amazing adults. I don’t want to miss a minute. I want more long days and loving nights with my husband. I want to laugh, travel, work, play, and not let cancer rob me of my life.

I don’t know how to get there yet, but I will get there. I will face what’s to come and I will keep fighting in the lab, as an advocate, and as a survivor. Cancer will not defeat my spirit. It will not rob me of joy for however long I may yet live. Strong, weak, confident, scared, sure, uncertain, and everything in between, I will face this.

Science Break! Breast Anatomy, Structure, and Function

This is the first in a series of posts dedicated to the science of breast cancer, so let’s start from the beginning with normal breast. In order to understand how cancer forms and grows, you first have to understand how non-cancerous cells behave and function. Why? Because fundamentally, cancer is an aberration of normal function. Cancer cells were once normal cells. A series of events that involve mutation in the cell’s DNA, the genetic blueprint that encodes instructions and specific modifications for that cell’s function that lead to changes in (1) the cell’s ability to divide, (2) the cell’s response to normal programmed cell death, (3) the cell’s ability to repair damaged DNA. These events reprogram the cell’s function and cause uncontrolled, abnormal cell growth, and these changes are alterations in the normal cell programs that maintain the balance between new cell growth and old cell death that maintain healthy cell function.

Let’s start with anatomy. Breasts are made up of milk-making (lobules) and shuttling (ducts) glandular epithelial cells anchored by connective tissue and support cells in a sea of squishy fat (adipose tissue). The glandular epithelium goes through a massive growth cycle during pregnancy and becomes a milk factory for nursing young. When the young stop nursing, the factory shuts down, most of the cells die, and the epithelium rests until the next pregnancy. The same cellular programs that control growth and death in these normal cycles become highjacked when a cell begins to transform from normal to cancer. This includes programs regulated by hormones like estrogen and progesterone, as well as cell surface growth factor receptors like HER2, which we will cover in future posts.

Most breast cancers form from ductal epithelial cells, but can form from lobular or other types of cells*. The most important take home message is that breast cancer isn’t a single disease. It is a collection of diseases classified by pathology (how it looks under the microscope) and molecular genetics (which collection of mutations in specific genes contribute to its formation and progression). There are at least five broad subtypes of breast cancer that can be further divided into additional subtypes: (1) Luminal A, which tend to be estrogen and progesterone hormone receptor positive (ER+/PR+) and lack HER2 alteration; (2) Luminal B, which tend to be estrogen receptor positive and can be HER2 positive or negative; (3) HER2-enriched, which tend to be negative for hormone receptors (ER-/PR-) and display amplification (more copies) of the gene encoding HER2 cell surface receptor; and (3) Triple negative, which lack hormone receptors (ER-/PR-) and HER2 amplification (HER2-)**. I’ll cover each of these subtypes in future posts, including the latest research on how they form at the molecular, genetic, and cell biologic level, and current/emerging treatment options.

To wrap things up, I’d like to share with you some of the work I did as a graduate student***, which involved understanding molecular regulation of normal breast epithelial development during puberty. Again, understanding how normal breast epithelium grows and forms as breasts develop is an important first step in understanding how things go wrong in breast cancer. The pictures in (A) show whole-mount preparations of mammary gland (a fancy term for squishing and flattening a small piece of tissue on a slide and staining it to show the epithelium in the sea of fat) of breast epithelium growing to fill the fat of developing breast during puberty. The specialized bulb-like structure (arrow) is called a terminal end bud (TEB). The schematic in (B) shows the structure of cells within the TEB as they grow from the TEB tip out and differentiate into their normal, mature structures in the area behind the TEB. Luminal epithelial cells line the ducts, while myoepithelial cells that surround the lumina structure contain contractile proteins that, like muscle, will eventually squeeze and contract to help milk travel to the nipple. Cap and body cells turn into these cell types when growth stops.

*American Cancer Society; **Susan G. Komen, ***From my graduate thesis

Introduction

I love you with all my boobs. I would say my heart, but my boobs are bigger

Dr. Dana Brantley-Sieders, Ph.D. (photo credit Lillian Boeskool)

I’ve spent twenty years working as a biomedical breast cancer researcher. Then, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I thought I knew breast cancer before it whacked me upside my left boob and left me bleeding on the curb of uncertainty. I thought I knew cancer. I had a lot to learn. The purpose of this blog is to share my personal adventure with breast cancer, from the laboratory bench to my own bedside, and to provide accessible information about breast cancer biology for non-scientists. I say adventure, because I’d rather think of it as action movie with some really cool side quests instead of another tragedy-to-triumph saga. I’m not big on sagas. I am big on kickass intellectual badassery, pathological nerdiness, and talking about my sweet, sweet rack.

I’ll be posting about breast structure and function, how breast cancers arise from normal breast tissues. Notice I wrote “cancers” instead of “cancer.” Breast cancers are a actually a collection of diseases, and all breast cancers are different. To date, there are at least 5 subtypes, and subtypes within those subtypes.

It’s complicated, which is one reason why we haven’t cured these diseases. Another reason is how tricky and adaptable cancers are by their very nature. We’ll get into all of that in a few posts. In the meantime, let me get into the other purpose of this blog: fighting pseudoscience and scams with peer-reviewed, vetted science.

We live in an age of fake news and pseudoscience, made worse by the pervasive anti-intellectual and anti-science political culture gripping the United States and much of the world. The Internet and social media are plagued by scammers selling “alternative medicine” and woo woo “cures” for cancer. Through TALKING TATAS, I offer accurate, evidence-based science that is accessible to laypersons, including the more than three hundred thousand individuals diagnosed with breast cancer every year*, their caregivers, and their loved ones. Submit questions, ask for follow-up on any and all posts, be a part of the discussion. Knowledge is power, and it can save lives!

Welcome! I’m glad you’re here!