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Breast Cancer Awareness Q&A with Cancer Researcher Melinda Irwin, PhD, MPH

October 19, 2021

As we honor breast cancer awareness month, what do you want our patients and families to pause and remember?

There has been significant progress made in preventing, detecting, and treating breast cancer. If diagnosed, you can improve your prognosis by following the dietary and physical activity guidelines. At Yale Cancer Center, we have a Survivorship Clinic where you can meet with a registered dietitian and physical therapist to assist you in your survivorship care plan.

What is your lab/research focused on now?

We know that eating healthy and exercise improve breast cancer outcomes. Yet most of the research has been done after women complete treatment. However, these lifestyle behaviors may reduce treatment side effects and improve adherence to the chemotherapy regimen prescribed. To better understand the impact of diet and exercise on treatment efficacy and side effects, we are conducting a trial of healthy eating and exercise during chemotherapy for breast cancer. We have enrolled 173 women before they began chemotherapy and half of the women were randomized to the nutrition and exercise program and half were randomized to standard of care. In early 2022, we will have the results as to whether eating healthy and exercise improved chemotherapy efficacy and side effects. If so, we hope that there will be more nutrition and exercise programs available to patients diagnosed with cancer.

Do you connect with clinicians treating patients with breast cancer to bridge laboratory research to clinical care?

Yes, all the time. On a daily basis, I communicate with oncologists and surgeons treating women with breast cancer as to how we not only treat the cancer, but focus on the whole person and what they need to live their best life.

What are you most excited about in the coming year or two?

First, I am so excited to learn the results of our trial of nutrition and exercise on chemotherapy adherence and side effects. Second, I am excited to do some analyses of the role of exercise and nutrition and the immune system in breast cancer. If we show that healthy lifestyle behaviors have strong and favorable impact on the immune system, then this is more evidence to implement nutrition and exercise programs as a standard part of oncology care. Third, I am intrigued with the possibility of a vaccine to prevent breast cancer. This is more than 2 years away, and a vaccine may first be available for high-risk women, but it will be a major breakthrough if/when a vaccine is available.

Mentorship is an important part of research—what is your favorite way to keep your team engaged, and learning from one another?

Mentoring the next generation of scientists is one of my favorite parts of research. We have weekly meetings with the research team and the trainees, but I also have one-on-one meetings regularly. We also get together for picnics and hikes and have specific get-togethers to do “appreciative inquiry questions” about our research studies and each other.

Submitted by Emily Montemerlo on October 19, 2021