Righting A Wrong



Yvonne Lee did everything she could to protect her health from breast cancer.

The long-time nurse took good care of herself, made time for her mammograms and checked herself regularly for changes – bringing a suspicious lump to her doctor’s attention right away, says her son, cancer researcher John Lee.

“Her case goes to show how much more we need to do,” says Dr. Lee, a leading expert in head, neck and throat cancer. “Her cancer was not due to lack of access or care. We still can do so much better.”

A reason for research

Last year, Dr. Lee’s mother lost an eight-year battle with breast cancer. She was 60 years old. Her son says that his mother’s journey illustrates the importance of Sanford’s efforts through Edith Sanford Breast Cancer to cure the disease.

“We don’t understand the disease process enough to learn how those cells turn into a cancer cell,” says the scientist, whose own clinical trials are leading to new treatments for oral cancer. “I’m so excited that Sanford is doing research to find the answer to breast cancer.”

Last year, Sanford Health established the Sanford BioBank. Researchers working to find new treatments and answers to what causes breast cancer will have access to genetic database that is unlike anything being used by researchers elsewhere.

Thousands of men and women are donating blood and tissue simples that will be used to speed up research into the genetic link to breast cancer. Researchers will have a large number of samples – from people of all ages and backgrounds – making it easier to organize and carry out clinical trials.

Better individual treatments

The biobank, part of Sanford’s commitment to finding a cure for cancer, will not only allow the health system to do large research trials, but to better understand how to treat and prevent the disease on an individual basis, Dr. Lee says.

“It’s a huge benefit for all the patients in the region to have access to the kind of care that comes from world class research,” says Dr. Lee. “We’ll be able to offer things that directly improve the lives of patients that are not available anywhere else in the world.

When Yvonne Lee was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had the advantage of having two sons who work in medical research. The very bubbly, outgoing nurse lived in Austin, Minn., but traveled for treatments to the cancer center connected to Harvard Medical Center where Lee’s brother specializes in chemotherapy.

She had a mastectomy and eight years of treatments, continuing with regular chemotherapy until her body became resistant to multiple types of cancer drugs.

“It’s a sad truth that despite optimal surveillance and good medical care, we still fail,” Dr. Lee says. “We are still treating the disease without understanding everything about it.”

Care close to home

While she was grateful for the cutting-edge care she received, it was always stressful for her to travel so far away to get there, Dr. Lee says. His mother, who was excited to have two sons who wanted to help others through their scientific work, was upbeat and hopeful about her treatment.

“She was always trying to put up a good fight,” says the cancer specialist, whose mother was still working as a nurse until two weeks before she died. “She never let the cancer change her life.”

Dr. Lee says he’s still struck how quiet the house is when he goes home to visit family in Minnesota. He is confident that Sanford’s genetic biobank and research efforts will bring premier care for this devastating disease to the region and the world.

“Doing research is the only thing that gives you hope for change,” says Dr. Lee. “It’s an exciting thing for every family fighting breast cancer.”

Posted Date: September 2012

Righting A Wrong

Sanford Researcher David Pearce knows what it’s like to lose a loved one to breast cancer. This leading expert in childhood genetic disease explains how the Sanford Health BioBank will unlock the answers to breast cancer treatments and eventually a cure.