Medical researcher Mary De Vera says colorectal cancer picked a fight with her, leading to a gruelling year of treatment that included surgery and radiation therapy.
Now it’s her turn to take on colorectal cancer.
“I am picking a fight back in the best way I know how, which is research,” said the 39-year-old assistant pharmaceutical sciences professor at the University of British Columbia.
Before cancer, Dr. De Vera’s researched such areas as arthritis medications during pregnancy and asthma medication adherence. Although still working in those areas, her major focus is now the cancer that afflicted her.
Dr. De Vera’s cancer journey began with bleeding in her bowel movements in late 2015 after she had returned to work from maternity leave following the birth of her second child.
It took four visits to doctors between March and May, 2016 for her to believe that she actually had cancer. “I was in such denial in the beginning.”
Dr. De Vera has now launched two major colorectal cancer research efforts. Her engagement marks a relatively rare case in the medical world of someone who has gone through treatment for an illness conducting research on that same illness. “I thought there was an opportunity to do something about a disease that had affected me so personally,” she said.
With a $458,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Dr. De Vera is leading a team assessing statistics and other “big data” information to see when colorectal cancer patients are diagnosed, gender distribution, types of treatment and outcomes and costs to the health-care system, as well as follow-up encounters with the health-care system. This research will last four years, involving a cross-country team with nine people – oncologists, a surgeon and health economists.
She is also managing an international online survey funded by the Canadian Centre for Applied Research in Cancer Control to better understand the information needs of patients and survivors of colorectal cancer. Most respondents, so far, are from Britain and the United States, and Dr. De Vera is hoping Canadians will offer their views. It was launched Nov. 15 and runs until March. Just before Christmas, there were 428 respondents. She is hoping for over 1,000.
Kerry Bowman, a University of Toronto bioethicist, said he has seen medical personnel take on a clinical interest in illnesses that have affected their families, but only rarely research their own illness.
There is, he said, a risk of blind spots in research, and emotional reactions that could affect conclusions. “If someone has been through a difficult cancer, that’s quite an emotional experience and it may be very hard to detach from that. They may have more insight into [the illness] and therefore may be motivated, but I think this comes down to personal judgment.”
Dr. De Vera was mindful of the issue. “It’s something that I actually grappled with in making the decision to research my own disease," she said.
She did research on whether it was possible for a doctors and scientists to objectively study a disease they have had and also consulted with colleagues.
“The biggest advice I have been getting is, ‘Stay the scientist,’ ” she said. “I always put my scientist’s hat on.”
Jonathan Loree, a medical oncologist at BC Cancer – a wing of British Columbia’s Provincial Health Services Authority that manages cancer programs – is working with Dr. De Vera, and considers her approach balanced. “She’s able to combine the [cancer] experience she had with scientific rigour, and a desire to make things better.”
He said her experience is unique because she was a relatively young person with colorectal cancer, diagnosed at age 36, which is younger than the more average diagnosis in the 50s.
“These people have a different journey they go through,” he said. “It gets us thinking about how we should tailor information needs for patients who are younger, and do they have different questions.” He refers to such issues as fertility, which is of interest to younger patients.
As Dr. De Vera noted, the more common age for colorectal cancer is 50 and older. “It’s thought of as an older person’s disease,” she said.
When she had cancer, she decided, based on advice from a colleague, that her job was to be the best possible patient, and beat the disease.
“Every time I went to an appointment, I would dress up. I would be the prettiest person in the waiting room,” she said. "I had an outfit. I had red lipstick on. I really did treat this as my job.”
It’s that mentality that got her through the ordeal and that she’ll be bringing to her new calling.
“I had prayed for it,” she said of being cured, “and hoped for it and it was my job so I was really hoping that I did my job well.”