Dr. Jansen, can you tell us a bit about what led you to do breast cancer research?
My mother-in-law, with whom I was very close, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer on the same day as my first medical school interview. Unfortunately, she passed away four years after her diagnosis and is not here to witness me doing this important work. I did not set out to be a medical oncologist and a breast cancer researcher; however, I cannot imagine doing anything different! I do this in memory of my mother-in-law and in honor of my patients touched by breast cancer.
On The Route
Since we’ve got some time, could you tell us a bit about your current research?
I study breast cancers that depend on estrogen for growth, which is the most common subtype of breast cancer. There are great options out there for estrogen receptor (ER)-positive tumors, and patients often respond well to treatment (for metastatic ER+ breast cancer, that would be a combination of a CDK4/6 inhibitor and an antiestrogen therapy). However, after an initial response to treatment, most ER+ tumors develop resistance and start growing again. In the laboratory, I am studying how and why these cancers do that and to identify new treatment strategies to overcome resistance. My Komen grant is focused on the role of a protein (PDK1) which could lead the way to new combination treatment strategies for women with metastatic ER-positive cancers.
Now that we’ve made it “home” for the night and are enjoying the support of our crew, can you tell us about how your work would be affected without Komen funding?
Komen funding is absolutely indispensable for my research and vital to my career aspiration to become an independently funded physician-scientist. Without Komen funding, I would not be able to perform cutting-edge research to improve the lives of patients with metastatic breast cancer. Furthermore, funding provides the foundation and results needed for future grants, enabling me to continue to grow as a physician-scientist with a robust translational/clinical breast cancer research program, and even more importantly – to continue to do work that could help save lives.
What would you say to somebody who’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer?
While we may not be able to cure metastatic breast cancer, we can certainly treat it with the goal of living as long as possible with a good quality of life. There is also hope for new and better treatment options based on research like mine.
Look at all of these enthusiastic supporters out along the route! What would your advice be to those who want to help make a difference in the fight against breast cancer?
People can make a difference by supporting programs like Komen, which in turn support early-career investigators (like me) and critical research aimed at reducing the number of deaths from breast cancer. I think it’s also important for each of us to be an advocate for our own health and to be educated about the advances being made in breast cancer research.
Three things to know about Dr. Jansen:
- Growing up in Nashville and passing by the Vanderbilt Medical Center as a young girl, my goal was to become a Vanderbilt doctor and help people. I am living that dream and more as a breast cancer doctor and breast cancer scientist at Vanderbilt. This is my Passion, Purpose and Focus.
- I was born in Laos and immigrated to the U.S. at six-years-old. My Laotian first name is Phoukhaokham which means mountain full of gold. I did not speak one word of English and now I speak English with a Southern accent! I am the first physician and scientist in my family – hopefully not the last, but my 12-year-old daughter researched pastry chef for her career project for school!
- Aside from the support from Komen, I would not be able to do what I do without the unwavering support of my family. They have made and continue to make sacrifices every day so that I can be in the lab late at night and on weekends. When I asked my daughter if she would change anything about me, including having me at home more, she replied, “No because I know when you’re not home, you are helping people.” It takes a village.
The finish line is in sight! Can you tell us about a defining moment for you when you realized the impact your work has in the fight against breast cancer?
I am still very early in my career as a physician-scientist, but a defining moment where I realized that my research has the potential to affect hundreds – and even thousands – of patients was when I presented a clinical trial concept stemming from my preclinical studies. In the clinic, I impact one patient at a time, but with my research I have the potential to make a huge impact that may improve on the lives of patients.
Thanks for walking us through your research, Dr. Jansen! Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our walkers, crew and supporters?
Komen has been instrumental in their investment of me as an early-career breast cancer researcher. My research findings will hopefully translate into clinical trials and ultimately a new treatment option for patients with metastatic ER+ breast cancer, none of which may be possible without the support from Komen.
Dr. Valerie Jansen is an oncologist and researcher at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Since 1982, Susan G. Komen has funded $920 million in breast cancer research, second only to the U.S. government and more than any other nonprofit in the world. Learn more here.
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