From Sidewalks to Science: An On-Route Look at Komen’s Research with Dr. Alana Welm

Day 1 of the Susan G. Komen 3day walk in Novi, Michigan on August 4, 2017.

Opening Ceremonies

Dr. Welm, can you tell us a bit about what led you to do breast cancer research?

Although I do not have a family history of breast cancer, cancer has greatly affected my family. I work closely with many patient advocates in breast cancer research, and have seen far too many succumb to breast cancer. As our population ages, I believe that cancer will surpass heart disease as the leading killer. Since breast cancer is the most common deadly cancer in women, I am extremely motivated to make a difference toward eliminating this disease that affects so many.

Dr. Alana Welm

On the Route

Since we’ve got some time, could you tell us a bit about your current research?

So far, our most important findings are centered on understanding how metastatic (or Stage IV) tumors arise, and the role the cells around the tumor play in regulating that process. We discovered that the RON kinase protein regulates metastasis and makes it easier for metastatic tumors to grow. We’ve shown that RON kinase inhibitors can block this process and reduce metastasis. We are now launching a new clinical trial to test a RON kinase inhibitor in breast cancer patients with bone metastasis, and we hope this study will help to determine the potential effectiveness of this drug in preventing and treating breast cancer metastasis.

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At Camp

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?

I was very lucky to be the recipient of a Komen postdoctoral fellowship when I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, which launched my independent career. The findings from that work led to my current faculty position, which I started 10 years ago. As a young principal investigator, I received a Komen Career Catalyst Award and, more recently, the Komen Leadership Award as a Komen Scholar. Several of my postdocs have received Komen fellowships as well and continued their careers in breast cancer. Without Komen funding, it’s hard to imagine what my lab would be doing now!

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Day 2

What would to somebody who’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer?

Keep the hope. Our understanding of this complicated disease has grown immensely and has led to new approaches, like immunotherapy, that might work even on very complex tumors for which we do not have current therapeutic approaches. Also, get involved! Involvement of patient advocates really does change the landscape of research in ways that can impact everything from research project funding to how clinical trials are conducted.

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Cheering Station

Look at all of these enthusiastic supporters out along the route! How has working with patient advocates impacted your research from a patient perspective?

I have had patient advocates ask questions that have really challenged the “why” to what we planned to investigate. There are many research questions that are very scientifically interesting and important, but would not change patient care in the foreseeable future. Also, spending time in the clinic has made me realize the limitations of what can be done, and I’ve learned to prioritize our research efforts toward directions that can be practically executed in the clinic. Now, our lab is balanced between finding new discoveries that could eventually make a difference, and those that could make a difference now.

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Mile 59

The finish line is in sight! Can you tell us about a defining moment for you when you realized the impact our work has in the fight against breast cancer?

We are about to open a Phase Ib clinical trial, which is based on our work in bone metastasis, which all started when I was a Komen postdoctoral fellow. It has taken 15 years of research in this new area, but we are excited to see the results, and what they could mean for women living with bone metastases. This would be a huge step in treating metastatic breast cancer, and making a significant impact in the lives of patients.

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Closing Ceremonies

Thanks for walking us through your research, Dr. Welm! Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our walkers, crew and supporters?

My lab has been funded by Komen for many years, including several fellowships for my postdocs and we have published Komen-funded research in journals. None of these advancements would be possible without the support of Komen fundraisers, like the 3-Day participants.

Dr. Alana Welm is an Associate Professor at the University of Utah Huntsman Cancer Institute and has been a Komen Scholar since 2016. Since 1982, Susan G. Komen has funded more than $956 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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Pit Stop

Two things to know about Dr. Welm:

  1. To clear my head, I like to trail run or go fly fishing. Both of these activities force me to stop thinking about the lab for a while and push the “reset” button.
  2. My husband, Bryan Welm, also runs a breast cancer research lab. We have two children (ages 13 and 11), and live in Park City, Utah. They are well versed in breast cancer from conversations at our dinner table!

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Grab and Go

Here are three ways you can use this information to help reach your 3-Day fundraising or recruiting goals:

  1. Breast cancer is the most common deadly cancer in women, so every step is a crucial one in the fight for a cure.
  2. Many research labs, postdoc fellowships and clinical trials are done thanks to Komen-funded research. None of the advancements that resulted from this work would be possible without the support of Susan G. Komen fundraisers, like the 3-Day.
  3. 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. Your dollars are being put to real use!

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Meet Lisa Partner, 3-Day Walker- and Breast Cancer Survivor

June is National Cancer Survivor Month, and is an excellent reminder of the strength, power and optimism we see from survivors on the 3-Day, and in all our own lives.

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We’d like to introduce you to Lisa Partner, a 3-Dayer and training walk leader from the Powered by Optimism team in San Diego. Lisa is a 12-year metastatic breast cancer survivor who has raised more than $23,000 for the 3-Day since her first walk in 2007.

 

Lisa found a lump in her breast when her daughter was only three months old, and after many doctors’ visits, tests and more, was finally diagnosed in early 2005. Her daughter was only 18 months old. From her initial discovery to her diagnosis, she admits that “cancer never really was in my thought process,” but it soon became a part of her everyday life.

Survivor Cred

A few months after her first surgery, Lisa explains “It was found that my cancer had spread to a single rib on the right side of my body. I was then restaged as metastatic. Due to restaging I will be on Herceptin indefinitely. After pondering my thoughts for a few months, I decided to have my right breast and ovaries removed.”

That initial reconstruction did not go smoothly, but Lisa has since seen more success with following reconstruction surgeries. Through it all, she has remained strong for herself and her family. Marianne Masterson, San Diego 3-Day coach, has sung Lisa’s praises for that immeasurable strength.

“Not only has Lisa confronted the trials associated with surgery and treatment, but also the stark odds that her daughter may be growing up without a mother. Lisa’s attitude was to do everything possible to stay alive to ensure this didn’t happen.”

Hug Lady

When she was able, Lisa joined the 3-Day in 2007, and since then has become an active participant, partaking in the Survivor Circle in 2010 and 2015, which she said was a “highly emotional” Experience. When talking about how being a survivor has affected her 3-Day experience, she explained,

“This is going to sound silly, but the walkers make me feel like a rock star. Funny, right?  Survivors are looked at as heroes, even though I don’t feel like one.  […]  Just the fact that so many people join together for a single cause is astounding.”

That feeling of community includes walker stalkers and other San Diego locals, who Lisa says are some of her favorite parts of the walk each year.

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“It is unique in that there are so many people coming together for a singular cause. And our community support here in San Diego is bar none!  We have the best city!”

Marianne summed it up best when she said, “Lisa is as dedicated to the cause as she is dedicated to living. She fully embraces living in the present and to me embodies everything the 3-Day represents!”

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If you want to make a difference for a breast cancer survivor, or help someone battling breast cancer in your own life, Lisa says it’s very simple; just be present.

“Be available to listen, offer a positive attitude, and offer to do grocery shopping, house cleaning, cooking meals.  Anything so that the person can focus on getting well.”

That is something Lisa focuses on every day. We are honored to have her in our 3-Day family during Cancer Survivor Month, and always.

 

 

Sister, Sister: Meet Angela and Shelly

The bond between sisters is truly unique and special, but the bond between “Titsters” is even deeper! Just ask Angela and Shelly, a sister duo who are part of the 3 Day family. Angela is currently battling breast cancer, and Shelly walks for Team Titster in the Twin Cities 3-Day in her honor.

From a young age, these two were joined at the hip, which meant Angela getting all her hair cut off when Shelly wanted to play “beauty parlor” or putting on plays and concerts together in their neighborhood. These “Titsters,” Angela’s childhood name for her sister, have been there for each other through it all.

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That journey and support also includes Angela’s ongoing fight with breast cancer, one that Shelly has been a part of since Angela’s diagnosis. Angela was initially diagnosed with cancer when she was seven months pregnant, and her sister “was there immediately to ensure she was there for the birth of my baby girl and to hold my hand during my first chemotherapy. During that chemotherapy, all we did was laugh at videos, reminisce on memories, and I think about that more than being sick after the treatment.”

“After I completed my treatment after my first round of breast cancer, I went to a pretty dark place. The mental and physical struggle after treatment can be more challenging than anything. Woman and men feel more alone than ever. They have constant help, messages, and support during treatment, but what happens after is way more crucial. During treatment, we are in survival mode and cannot fully comprehend that we are going through cancer. Once treatment is done, the messages and help dwindle but the pain is still there. Our body is adjusting and still combatting the toll of chemotherapy, surgeries and radiation. Mentally, we never recover. The constant thought of recurrence always lingers and life is never the same. At the same time, we gain strength in a different way and look at the world and see that life is a gift. We cherish memories differently, we see the kindness of family and our community, and know that every day counts.”

Angela’s treatment will continue for the rest of her life, as she was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer in January of 2016. Stage IV research made up nearly 40% of Susan G. Komen’s overall research investment in 2016, with more than $166 million in funding for over 400 research grants and more than 40 clinical trials focused on metastatic disease to date. Aside from research and monetary support, Angela says she is constantly amazed by the support she receives from her family and even the community at large.

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“What is so enlightening with all these clinical trials is that everything is so new at this point. And it is scary regardless, but what I like to tell people is that every day is a gift, but also a battle. Cancer is not going to control my life. It’s always going to be a part of me, but it does not define me.

“I’m also confident that I will live my life to inspire people and show people that despite being diagnosed with cancer, it doesn’t define you. I keep a happy journal, and at the end of every day I write my favorite part of the day, whether it’s a wonderful moment with my kids or a great conversation with my sister.”

3day20153Angela also credits Shelly as her rock, even from states away.

“The bond I have with my sister has helped me tremendously with this struggle and she truly showcases the bond that sisters have. She was there to comfort me and help me understand this it’s okay to still cry, but more importantly to laugh. We live in different states and I know that signing up for the 3-Day was just another way to show that she’s always there to face my battles with me, even if we cannot do it together.”

First day of chemo

Part of Shelly’s support has come through her involvement in the 3-Day, which began as a crew member and has continued as a walker and fundraiser for the team she formed last year, Team Titster. Her first year on the 3-Day was a monumental one.

“When I signed up to be in the crew, part of the sign-up mentioned possibly being a part of the Opening or Closing Ceremony, speaking and carrying the sister flag,” Shelly explained when talking about speaking at her first walk. “The day before the walk at Crew Training, I met a bunch of very friendly, fun gals, who when I spoke on stage the next morning, cheered me on, even though I was nervous, and even though I was a stranger to them up until the day before. That has been my experience with everyone connected to the walk. Just good people.”

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For her second year with the 3 Day, Shelly took to the trails and walked in her sister’s honor.

“When I decided to walk the next year, I was a little intimidated by the fundraising. But I found that when I reached out to my network to let them know why I was walking, and asked them to consider donating, people were more than willing to support me and Angie and the cause. I also found that almost every one of them had a connection to breast cancer. That alone is sad, but it motivated me even more to walk for those who also had loved ones battling or had battled the disease.”

Shelly helped her fundraising cause by casting a wide net for her initial email ask with a link to her page, along with a write up about Angela and a picture of “my little sister hero.” She also writes a 3-Day blog and shares that along with thank you cards to all her supporters to help them feel like they were there for her journey along the 60 miles.

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When she started Team Titster in her third year on the 3-Day, Shelly expanded her fundraising email list and worked on her social media to raise even more. She targeted her competitive spirit and eventually raised more than $2,000 more than her first year. She was also the #7 Top Fundraiser for the Twin Cities 3-Day.

This success is no surprise to Angela, who has always been inspired and supported by their sisterhood.

“Shelly has always been my role model, and is someone that I’m inspired to be like. She is always the first person I want to talk to when I’m having a bad day, but more importantly, I want to talk to her in my great days.”

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The love is certainly mutual, with Shelly calling Angela a super hero.

“Angie is small in stature but big in personality, perseverance and mostly in heart. She is feisty and fun, outgoing and stubborn, and those are all things we have in common. […] I realize that I have the best sister in the world. She doesn’t judge me, she’s been there for me when others have not been, and I am so proud of her in every way possible. Angie is my heart.”

That heart is going to finally experience the 3-Day for the first time this year. Angela will be making the trip from Chicago to the Twin Cities 3-Day in 2017 to cheer on Team Titster, which Shelly hopes to grow this year as well.

“I’m excited to be there the first time to cheer on my sister and Team Titster!” Angela enthuses. “I’m also happy to be able to volunteer and see the 3-Day. I’m thrilled and a bit nervous for the emotional experience but more importantly, I can’t wait to see and listen to the inspiring stories, and to hold the hands of Team Titster and fellow walkers.

“I know this walk means a lot to Shelly, and I know that every mile she walks, she truly is walking in my shoes to take some of the pain away. I’ve always looked up to my sister. She has more determination, heart and spirit than anyone I’ve ever met. I’ve also come to realize that those qualities are what inspires me to fight harder every day.”

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Shelly echoes that determination, saying that the 3-Day is “emotional (lots of crying, both happy and heart wrenching), challenging (walking and training to walk 60 miles is no easy feat), and unforgettable (experiences and memories that are priceless and make you want to come back).”

Both Angela and Shelly will continue to come back as walkers, volunteers or supporters, until a cure is found.

Sticker

“There is still no cure for breast cancer,” Shelly states simply. “That in itself gives me purpose and determination to keep doing the walks. My favorite button on my 3-Day water pack is ‘Every Blister Saves a Sister.’ I am prone to blisters, no matter how much training I do, (last year, I had 11 by the end of Day 3) so walking until there is a cure is something I feel like I can do, and will try to keep doing until there is no more breast cancer. Blisters do not hurt, physically or emotionally, as much as cancer does. And of course, my sister inspires me, not just to do the walk, but she inspires me every day.”

The power of sisterhood on the 3-Day is real, and every step makes a difference.