Electra Paskett is no stranger to breast cancer. As a behavioral epidemiologist at the Ohio State University and Play for P.I.N.K. award recipient, she studies how best to engage women in reducing the risk of developing or dying from breast cancer. It is a science she knows too well. Both her mother and grandmother are breast cancer survivors and at the age of 40, she too shared the diagnosis. Today she stands not only as a three-time breast cancer survivor but also a leading mind in breast cancer research.
“I always knew that some day I would develop breast cancer because of my family history,” Paskett said. “I didn't ever think it would be at age 40 with a two-year-old.”
Over the course of her three diagnoses, Paskett endured several surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Despite her expansive knowledge of the disease itself, much of the treatment and its side effects was new territory. Everything from chemotherapy side effects to the daily routine of radiation therapy were realities that had to be understood one step at a time.
This included her lymphedema diagnosis.
“I never knew what lymphedema was until I developed it,” Paskett said about the condition caused by the build-up of fluid in soft body tissues when the lymph system is damaged or blocked. Lymphedema in the upper body most commonly occurs among breast cancer patients, and in the legs and lower body among patients with prostate cancer, lymphoma, melanoma or uterine cancer.
Surprised by the side effect, she used her expertise as a researcher to dig deeper and find if other breast cancer patients were in the dark too.
“What I found very interesting was women didn't know anything [about lymphedema]. There's not a lot of conversation, not a lot of communication,” Paskett said.
She then instituted a trial aimed at preventing the development of lymphedema altogether.
“I really developed a whole research area in survivorship,” Paskett said describing a research program on the side effect, in addition to the screening studies she runs.
Paskett’s dual perspective on life as both a patient and scientist has given her new insight on the profound impact of breast cancer research.
“Nineteen years ago people thought if you develop cancer, you're going to die. So it was really hard to look at them in the face and tell them you had cancer,” Paskett said recalling her initial diagnosis. Today, that outlook has shifted.
“I think what's very exciting now is personalized medicine that allows doctors to treat the type of cancer that each person has,” Paskett said.
For Paskett the advent of personalized medicine has contributed to more women living longer, healthier lives.
“If it were not for BCRF we would not have the innovative treatments that we have now for breast cancer, treatments that are saving lives every day because they are personalized, personalized to the tumor, personalized to the woman, personalized to her type of cancer.”
It’s this promise that research carries that gives Paskett hope for the future.
“Without research we would not be saving as many people today as we are,” she said. “Because of research I was able to get treatments that saved my life. My hope is that in the future the research that I do might be able to make another person’s life better or actually save their life.”