Heather Geye knows cancer research.
As a database manager in the Department of Human Oncology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, this self-described “data nerd” tracks the progress of head and neck cancer patients at the University of Wisconsin and helps faculty and residents conduct clinical research and analyses of clinical outcome data.
She also knows what it’s like to be the subject of cancer research. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2014, she knew her treatment would be based on the findings from research involving patients like her, and she wanted to do her part to support this important research, so she volunteered for a clinical trial.
Geye’s breast cancer was caught relatively early. She noticed mass in her right breast soon after her son was no longer breastfeeding. A biopsy determined it to be hormone receptive-positive breast cancer that had spread to two lymph nodes. She had a lumpectomy and the lymph nodes removed, which would then be followed by radiation therapy and hormonal therapy (tamoxifen, and then exemestane after she had her ovaries removed to further reduce the estrogen signal in her system).
Doctors typically recommend chemotherapy and hormonal therapy after surgery for patients with hormone receptor-positive breast cancer that has spread to their lymph nodes. But for patients with a low to moderate risk of recurrence, the addition of chemotherapy may offer little or no benefit. A genetic test of Geye’s tumor determined she has a low risk of recurrence. She agreed to participate in a clinical trial to measure how much, if any, benefit patients like her get from chemotherapy and to determine which patients will benefit from the addition of chemotherapy and which would likely do just as well with hormonal therapy alone.
“It was very important for me to participate, knowing how much cancer research and treatment benefit from clinical trials,” Geye says. “I believe very strongly in research. It’s very much a part of who I am.”
Geye was randomly selected to receive the chemotherapy (adriamycin and cyclophosphamide) and hormonal treatment and chose to endure the side effects of chemotherapy to help find the best treatment for others diagnosed with the disease.
“Somebody has to receive with the chemo, but I wasn’t upset about it because we don’t know the best answer if we don’t do the research,” Geye says.
Throughout her yearlong treatment she missed just three or four weeks of work. “By going to work, I was able to focus on my job instead of my disease and do things that are personally important to me. It really helped,” she says. “Obviously, we treat cancer in this department, so everybody knows what it’s like to go through cancer treatment, and so everybody supported me. That meant a lot.”
From her position, Geye has seen how research can lead to better treatment. She also knows the resources needed to make possible the type of leading-edge cancer research conducted within the department.
Above all, cancer research requires money, which is why the Department of Human Oncology is hosting The Ride, a bicycle fundraiser to support cancer research at the University of Wisconsin. Geye is not much of a bicyclist, but she will be volunteering at this event to support the department that has done so much for her and others in the community and beyond.
“Doing science is expensive, but what we’re learning from this research benefits the community, the state and the world,” Geye says. “The Ride is a great opportunity to participate in a fun event and raise money for research that could lead to improvements in cancer treatment for the future.”