These researchers have dedicated their careers to finding new treatments and cures for people with cancer.
Today, as a cancer surgeon based at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California, Dr. Viet focuses her research and practice on improving outcomes for patients with oral, head, and neck cancers. That includes studying the epigenetic biomarkers of oral cancer, a particularly painful and disfiguring disease. A Conquer Cancer grant recipient, Dr. Viet is working to identify epigenetic signatures of oral cancer to better personalize patient treatment. She's also developing new strategies to help patients more effectively manage pain during and after cancer care.
What was it about your early training experiences that inspired you to pursue surgical oncology as a career?
Dr. Viet: As I started interacting with these patients with oral cancer, I realized they had very poor survival. More than half of them would not make it to five years. Whenever I see a patient with late-stage cancer succumb to their disease, it’s very difficult for me as their surgeon. At the same time, it tells me that as a scientific community, we need to do better for these patients. I don’t think cancer treatment is about miracles; it’s through purposeful research that allows us to make contributions and take small steps towards improving survival and quality of life for our patients.
What role do you feel patient partnership plays in the success of your research and your patients’ outcomes?
Dr. Viet: My research is rooted in my clinical observations and therefore remains highly translational. My Conquer Cancer-funded project is a clinical study that enrolls the patients I treat in my practice. I collect their cancer samples and evaluate their symptoms and outcomes through clinical measures and questionnaires. In my research, I'm trying to improve our ability to predict disease outcomes in patients so that we can better tailor their treatment. This knowledge can enable doctors to escalate treatment in patients at higher risk for cancer spread and de-escalate treatment in patients with lower risks.
How would you summarize the goals of your current research?
Dr. Viet: My research has two different goals. The first is improving survival by identifying molecular signatures of aggressive cancer. Here, I ask questions like, “What are specific epigenetic markers in patients with oral cancer that are likely to predict they will die within 5 years?” The second focus of my research is pain. I witness pain in my patients and see how much it affects their quality of life and function, so I am using validated questionnaires to assess pain, anxiety and depression, and better understand their unique needs for tailored treatment and care.
What is the impact of donor-funded research for patients with oral cancers?
Dr. Viet: Patients with oral cancer have a much more difficult treatment pathway because of the reduced funding and reduced public interest, and because it’s a rare cancer. As a result, we don’t have as many advances in treatment as we see with other, more common and well-funded cancers. It’s very difficult to get research funding, especially as an early career surgical oncologist. That’s why having foundations like Conquer Cancer –– that are willing to fund surgeons in the early stages of their career –– is vital in helping to advance new treatments and cures. Funding from Conquer Cancer helped to jumpstart my research and opened doors much more quickly than would've otherwise been possible.
Can you talk about the role that patients themselves play in advancing cancer research and treatment?
Dr. Viet: I think what we’re trying to do with research, with enrolling patients into clinical studies and clinical trials, is to instill in them a sense of hope. Not only for themselves, but also for patients in the future. And even when they know their enrollment into that study or trial might not directly benefit them, at the end of the day, it is giving future patients hope for a better chance of finding cures. I think with anything we do in life, at the end of the day, it’s the human connection that matters. I started in oral cancer research because of patient interactions; I continue to be driven because of my patients.