As she was finishing her master’s degree in exercise physiology, Dr. Melinda Irwin came across a just-published study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute by the late cancer epidemiologist Dr. Leslie Bernstein. In what would later be considered a landmark study, researchers showed that regular exercise before menopause could significantly reduce a woman’s breast cancer risk. Several things clicked as Dr. Irwin read the paper.
“At the time I was thinking, Do I want to try for med school? Do I want to get a PhD? I knew that research informs clinical practice, but we weren’t there yet with research,” she said. “Reading that paper in 1994, I realized I definitely wanted to get my PhD and focus on exercise and breast cancer risk.”
Exercise science and kinesiology were natural interests for Dr. Irwin. Growing up, she was a nationally ranked gymnast, spending her teenage years competing around the country and throwing herself into five-hour-a-day training sessions.
There was another layer to Dr. Irwin’s interest in that 1994 paper: She had lost her mother to breast cancer just a few years prior.
After finding a lump in her breast on the eve of her 45th birthday, Dr. Irwin’s mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Dr. Irwin was 16.
At the time of diagnosis, her mother’s cancer had spread to her liver and, eventually, it spread to her bones. Dr. Irwin remembered her mother receiving chemotherapy, and that, at the time (it was the 1980s), cancer was a very private disease that few people talked about. Other moments from that time, she said, still stand out.
“Memories will pop up,” she said. “On a Friday that spring, we were supposed to go out for photos for the junior prom. My mom had had her hip replaced a month prior and wasn’t supposed to bend more than 90 degrees, but she bent a little too far and her hip dislocated. I remember calling 911 and riding with her in the ambulance that night.”
Dr. Irwin’s mother lived with metastatic breast cancer for two and a half years, passing on her son’s birthday. Toward the end of her mother’s life, Dr. Irwin was a freshman in college, living far from home. That winter, her parents drove down to see her compete in a gymnastics meet at school—and it turned out to be the last time Dr. Irwin saw her mother before it was clear that her breast cancer had spread to her brain.
“I remember she sat me down and was asking if I was happy and telling me she loved me,” Dr. Irwin said. “It was very touching—and in a way it was like a goodbye, because the next week she forgot her phone number, and then she was in the hospital. Somehow maybe she knew she was terminal.”
Her mother’s experience with breast cancer radically shaped Dr. Irwin, who described herself as a tough kid who didn’t like to show emotion in front of other people.
“I made a promise to myself that I was going to open up—I didn’t want to be closed off from people,” she said. “I didn’t want to hide things that were challenging to talk about. I said I wanted to be more open as a person.”
Dr. Irwin’s mother’s death also inspired her to make cancer prevention the focus of her career—even though the field was still in its infancy. After reading Dr. Bernstein’s seminal study on exercise and breast cancer, Dr. Irwin got her PhD and went on to work under pioneers in the field including Dr. Bernstein, Dr. Barbara Ainsworth, and BCRF investigator Dr. Anne McTiernan.
“With them, I published some of the very first and most highly cited papers showing how physical activity before and after diagnosis was associated with breast cancer mortality: the higher activity levels, the lower your mortality from breast cancer,” she said.
Today, Dr. Irwin is an endowed professor and the associate dean of research at Yale School of Public Health and deputy director overseeing population sciences research at Yale Cancer Center. A BCRF investigator since 2013, she is studying how diet and exercise interventions impact patients’ adherence to chemotherapy and endocrine therapy, along with patient-reported outcomes, biomarkers, and body composition parameters.
“Probably the most important, impactful, and rewarding gift I’ve ever received was to get BCRF funding, because it allows you to test out-of-the-box ideas and hypotheses that are very preliminary,” she said. “The research that is going to inform the next breakthrough is from these findings.”
When Dr. Irwin looks back at her career, she stresses that her research would not have been possible without BCRF funding and the leaders she worked with in the field. Today, she’s driven to mentor the next generation of researchers and help patients now and in the future. And, of course, in all things she is driven by her mom’s experience—and how far research has come since and still has yet to go.
“On a daily basis, I’m inspired by my mom and how brave she was,” Dr. Irwin said. “I feel confident that if she was diagnosed today, she would have survived, because she would have been diagnosed earlier and there would have been targeted therapies for her.”
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