Moving research — and women — forward at the Rogel Cancer Center

March 31, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,
Lynn Henry, M.D., Ph.D., left, and Sarah Hawley, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Every day, the research teams at the Rogel Cancer Center are taking steps toward uncovering the mysteries of the disease and developing more advanced therapies. 

This development and discovery process can seem long and arduous. It requires commitment and ingenuity. For some, it can become even more complicated when your work often leaves you feeling as though you’re on an island by yourself, without mentors and peers who you can relate to.

That’s certainly the case for a number of women in cancer research — a small, but determined population that is growing by the day.

To close out Women’s History Month, here’s a closer look at a few of the women making an enormous impact in cancer research at Michigan Medicine.

Gender inequity

According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics data, less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women. 

At the Rogel Cancer Center, women scientists have been pushing research forward despite this lack of gender equity. 

Sarah Hawley, Ph.D., M.P.H., for instance, focuses her research on improving the quality of cancer care through analyzing data and speaking with cancer patients about their experiences to enhance decision making. 

Her current project is an R01 study in collaboration with another female cancer researcher at the Rogel Cancer Center, Reshma Jagsi, M.D., D.Phil. They are working on evaluating the efficacy of shared decision engagement systems — addressing patient emotion and “circling back” with clinicians — in the treatment of breast cancer.

“Ultimately, we would like such interventions to be used across cancers and implemented into health systems to provide patients with support as they are making treatment decisions,” Hawley said. 

Hawley initially became interested in cancer research while in her doctoral program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She wrote her dissertation on the role of physician recommendations in influencing screening uptake. 

“The further I got into this work, I became interested in intervening to help patients clarify and promote their preferences and communicate these to clinicians.”

Improving quality of life

Lynn Henry, M.D., Ph.D., focuses her research on the toxicity of therapy for breast cancer, and how it affects patients’ quality of life.

“I try to understand why patients develop side effects and how best to prevent or manage them.” she said. “The overall goal of my research is to optimize the patient experience for women with breast cancer, to enable them to take these important anti-hormonal medications to reduce their risk of breast cancer recurrence, while minimizing the negative impact on their quality of life.”

Henry’s work wasn’t always so patient focused. 

“When I initially started my career, I planned to perform laboratory-based research, and obtained my Ph.D. in structural biology. However, I soon discovered that my heart lay more in more patient-focused research, so I switched paths and attended medical school, ultimately specializing in breast medical oncology.”

Hawley and Henry are two of the 191 women who are members of the Rogel Cancer Center, which accounts for approximately 33 percent of its total researchers. 

Their contributions are substantial to the field of cancer research and are prime examples of the many paths that lead to medical research careers for women. 

“When I entered the field, I wasn’t sure where my research would take me,” Hawley said. “But I’m glad it’s taken me here, and I’m glad I’m able to collaborate with so many wonderful women to move cancer research forward.”