Quirks & Quarks

The patient researcher: a scientist's cancer diagnosis changes her life's work

A young researcher's experience is helping her help others deal with many aspects of the disease

A young researcher's experience is helping her help others deal with many aspects of the disease

Mary de Vera in 2016 during her first round of chemotherapy (Mary de Vera)
Listen15:36

A scientist who researches a variety of diseases, ailments and medical conditions, everything from asthma and arthritis to pregnancy, recently focused her expertise on herself. She turned personal difficulty into an an opportunity of sorts, and came away with a positive experience for herself, and a chance to benefit others.

For Mary De Vera, an assistant professor in the faculty of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of British Columbia, her journey started on March 29th of 2016. That was the day De Vera was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer. Thankfully after three years of treatment and recovery cycles, chemotherapy, blood tests, a final CT scan taken just a week ago revealed that De Vera is now cancer free.

How she used her own cancer as a way to help other cancer patients in between those two events, is her inspirational story. 

Mary and her 3 year old daughter Valery doing laps around the hospital ward after bowel resection surgery (Mary de Vera)

From young mother and rising researcher to cancer patient

When she was diagnosed De Vera had just returned from maternity leave and had planned to publish her arthritis research. She had every reason to be optimistic about the way her life was going. Instead she faced a new life of uncertainty, starting with a year of cancer treatment.

By her own admission, De Vera was angry at first — too busy to have cancer, she thought. With a newborn and a three year old, and a thriving career as a rising researcher, her life had been full of promise.   

To that point her work as an epidemiologist had focused on researching how disease spreads, looking for patterns that connect age groups and ailments, or finding ways to help patients live better lives after diagnosis. She still does all of that work, but with a new purpose and perspective.

That new outlook came after a grueling experience of treatment for her cancer: many weeks of radiation, surgeries, including a procedure called an ileostomy, eight cycles of chemotherapy, and all the nausea and complications that come with being a patient.

Mary de Vera and her family (Mary de Vera)
 

Sharing her own patient experience

De Vera decided to take her own patient experience and share it, and let that inform and guide the type of research that she does.One of the ways she did this was to start a blog and join Instagram as a way of connecting with colorectal cancer patients her own age.

Because much of the information she had about her cancer was directed toward people over 50, the most common demographic for colon cancer, it was important for her to hear and ask questions specific to her situation as a younger patient. This included questions about cancer and parenting, specifically having to explain colorectal cancer to young children. She saw this as an information gap that her own research could address. 

Posing in front of her graduation photo (Mary de Vera)

Helping colorectal cancer patients, young and old

To do this, De Vera assembled a team that included experts in her own field, as well as others from health economics and cancer research to apply for a grant to try to determine if colorectal cancer was becoming more common in a younger demographic, and if so what can be done about it.

For this research, a grant of $459,000 was awarded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in 2018. Another grant of $30,000 was awarded by the The Canadian Centre for Applied Research in Cancer Control. With this grant she launched a survey for colorectal cancer patients to ask them about their needs at the time of diagnosis, during treatment and post treatment, the period referred to as 'survivorship'. 

Mary calls this one 'Christmas Chemo", taken during her treatment (Mary de Vera)

De Vera has now built a world-wide early-onset colorectal cancer community that numbers about 800. She is hopeful that information gathered from this group will help provide future colorectal cancer patients with the care, treatment and resources she wishes were available to her just three years ago.       

 

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