Monash researchers partner with donors to fight rare cancers

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The Aftershock joined forces on a research project into deadly esophageal cancer with Professor Wendy Brown, surgeon at Alfred Hospital, researcher and head of the department of surgery at Monash University.

After Suzanne Neate’s mother, Teresa, passed away from thyroid cancer five years ago, Suzanne wanted to make an impact on the lives of others with high death rate cancers.

Teresa had spent time in rehabilitation; Suzanne thought of financing equipment, walkers or wheelchairs for the people in care. “Then I thought, ‘No, the problem is, she shouldn’t have been there to start – how do you stop someone from being there to start?” She said. “You are looking – it all comes down to research. “

Suzanne, CEO of Reply, the non-profit organization she founded in 2017, joined forces on a deadly esophageal cancer research project with Alfred Hospital surgeon Professor Wendy Brown, researcher and head of the Monash University Department of Surgery (Suzanne and Wendy pictured, left to right). This is the third research study conducted by researchers at Monash Central Clinical School (CCS) with The Aftershock. An anonymous donor funds the project through the organization.

This year, around 1,000 Australians will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer, of which only 50% are expected to live beyond 12 months and a few will survive beyond five years. Much of this is because the diagnosis is usually made when the disease is advanced.

“At least 50 to 60 percent of people present at a time when we can’t offer them a cure and the curative treatments available to us are pretty intense,” said Wendy.

Treatments involve chemotherapy and radiation therapy followed by an operation to remove a large segment of the esophagus (esophagus or swallowing tube) and then recreate a tube from the stomach or large intestine that connects the stomach. stomach to the remaining esophagus, allowing the patient to swallow. “Sometimes that means sliding the stomach up to the chest and even down the neck. It’s more important than a heart transplant in terms of invasiveness, ”said Wendy.

Only a minority of patients diagnosed with esophageal cancer, perhaps 30%, are physically able to undergo the surgery and although their long-term survival rate is lengthened, the quality of life never fully returns, a she declared. Patients constantly suffer from swallowing difficulties, nausea, severe food intolerance, malnutrition and lethargy. These problems are associated with psychological distress, anxiety and depression.

“Food is an integral part of our life, one of the pleasures of life,” said Suzanne.

While many advances have been made in treatments for the most common cancers such as breast cancer, survival rates and surgical techniques for esophageal cancer have improved little over the past 70 years.

“The reason the survival rate hasn’t improved is that there aren’t a lot of conversations or campaigns and not a lot of funded projects because unfortunately these patients are dying,” said Suzanne. “If we invest in research, it means that we are not only improving the survival rate and extending life, but also the quality of life, the knowledge of this particular cancer and preventing people from having these horrible stays at the hospital. hospital, ”she said.

The Aftershock supports CCS research aimed at improving outcomes and quality of life for people undergoing curative surgery, including by optimizing swallowing. The research is being carried out by the doctoral student, the surgeon Dr Kaleb Lourensz, who is developing new techniques to better understand the functioning of the stomach “withdrawn” after surgery.

The study uses dynamic magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in concert with high-resolution nuclear scintigraphy – an analysis using radioactive chemicals to track food moving through the digestive system – to help assess the progress of contraction and emptying of the reconstructed esophagus over time. He will also compare patients who have a good long-term functional outcome of their gut after surgery, with those who have a poor outcome to see what works and what to avoid.

“We then hope to create an algorithm or a ‘recipe’ for what we should do during the operation to create the best duct (or new esophagus) that we can – how wide, the best shape, the best blood supply – for optimize the situation so that patients have the best quality of life, ”said Wendy.

“We are very grateful for the opportunity to do this research. It is difficult to get people interested in esophageal cancer. People like Suz, with her passion, are priceless. It’s the typical Australian spirit, fighting for the outsider! she said.

“She’s an inspiring young woman who took it upon herself to take the tragedy and make it something really positive for the community.”

The Aftershock is a small organization aiming to “make a big bang” by focusing on a few research projects, initially the work of CCS Associate Professor James Lee on thyroid cancer, then Professor Meng Law’s group investigating brain cancer fatal glioblastoma, and now on esophageal cancer.

Her other goal is to raise awareness of high-fatality diseases through events such as Teresa’s Trotters, an annual six-kilometer walk (Teresa also walked far every day) and a Podcast in which Wendy participated.

“I wanted to do everything I could to support the association not only for my own research, but because I believe that rare cancers are forgotten cancers and that people with these cancers should have the same opportunities as those whose cancers are more recognized, ”said Wendy.

In 2019, Suzanne spent a day with Wendy at the Alfred, observing an esophagectomy – “a real eye-opener” – meeting her team and chatting with some of Wendy’s patients. The Aftershock later hosted an exhibit featuring 16 stories about people touched by cancer, including patients, family members, oncologists and surgeons.

“Wendy has been a huge supporter and a huge part of The Aftershock over the past two years,” said Suzanne.

“It’s so gratifying to close the loop between donors, researchers and clinicians because we are all working together for the good of our patients, which is a really satisfying feeling,” said Wendy.


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