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Research Is the Reason I Wake Up Every Morning
Dr. Sofia Merajver’s work has improved patients’ lives, including her own.
Sofia Merajver was shoe shopping with her daughter when her phone rang. Her doctor had her biopsy results.
“In the short time between choosing what shoes to buy and paying for them, I learned I had cancer in both breasts,” Sofia said remembering the moment of her diagnosis last year.
As a physician scientist who has dedicated the last 25 years of her life to breast cancer research, she was no stranger to the disease.
“My own clinic is populated by patients exactly like me,” she said.
Soon, Sofia was following in her patients’ footsteps. After learning her cancer was hormone receptor positive, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy followed by endocrine therapy.
While in treatment, she continued to work, attending medical conferences, including one where she witnessed a breakthrough moment in breast cancer research. BCRF researcher Dr. Joseph Sparano’s TAILORx study proved that most patients with early-stage breast cancer can avoid chemotherapy altogether.
“I was in this huge room with 30,000 cancer researchers from over 100 countries – and you could hear a pin drop,” Sofia said describing the moment at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s 2018 annual meeting.
“This research took over 10 years to conclude, and it's such an important piece of research – I'm already benefiting from it,” Sofia said.
Her tumor markers indicated that she didn’t need chemotherapy, which allowed her to avoid the treatment and its harsh side effects. While her treatment plan was determined before the trial results were announced, Sofia felt validated by the recent discovery.
“I am proof that I did not need chemo. I would have been grappling with that choice if this research hadn't been done,” she said.
It’s discoveries such as these that Sofia lives for. As a child, she was always interested in finding new knowledge. Becoming a researcher was a natural fit.
“Breast cancer has led the way in all of cancer research. And I wanted to be there. I wanted to be at the crest of the wave. I wanted to blaze new trails,” she said.
A turning point in her career came with a phone call from Dr. Larry Norton, BCRF’s Scientific Director.
“He said, ‘We'd like to get a proposal from you,’” Sofia said recalling the conversation. “And I asked, ‘Can you hold on a minute?’ Because I started crying when I heard that.”
For Sofia, a BCRF grant demonstrated her research was being recognized and supported by the greater scientific community.
“My colleagues trusted my imagination to create the next cure for breast cancer,” she said.
Sofia has been a BCRF-funded researcher since 2004. In that time, her lab at the University of Michigan has focused on seeking new strategies for the prevention and treatment of metastatic breast cancer, while understanding the biology of tumors that metastasize.
All of these advancements take time. Despite her own breast cancer diagnosis and the challenges that come with being a researcher, she stuck with the process and is proud of her lab’s recent successes.
“Since my diagnosis, I believe my lab has done the best work I have ever done,” she said. “I think the work that we will do in the next five years will be my biggest legacy.”
She notes incredible progress has already been made in bringing faster, personalized treatment to patients—testing a tumor directly from the operating room to identify the best treatment options for that specific patient in just a few days.
“When you're a researcher, every day you get up and hope to discover something that is groundbreaking. Those days are very few in one's career. But they're very special, because those days you are moving the needle. And you will save lives through your work,” she said.
Not only has her diagnosis informed her research, but also her skills as a physician.
“It's helped me become a better doctor,” she says. “I'm able to give my patients insight into what I felt, and many times they say that helps.”
Today, Sofia remains more determined than ever to continue her quest for the next breakthrough in breast cancer.
“I'm proud to have stuck it out with research through thick and thin,” she said. “I'm here for the duration. Cancer is not stopping me.”