These researchers have dedicated their careers to finding new treatments and cures for people with cancer.
Z, a 10-year-old patient with relapsed leukemia, builds beaded jewelry while in the hospital for treatment. Much like Z weaves intricate webs of wearable artwork, her doctor, Molly Taylor, MD, MS, a pediatric oncologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, crafts care plans to help address symptoms, side effects, and life circumstances facing patients with cancer.
To improve her quality of life, Z needs access to new treatment possibilities while she conquers cancer. Dr. Taylor can help: Her research focuses on pediatric biobehavioral oncology, investigating how mental, behavioral, and environmental factors interact with the immune system to affect cancer outcomes in children and adolescents and young adults (AYA).
“We have known for a long time that physical and mental health are connected, and as the science has grown and evolved, we can see that the brain and immune systems are tightly linked. Recent scientific evidence shows an important link between the mind and body may be related to the sympathetic nervous system, or ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response,” says Dr. Taylor. “If we can understand how stress is related to the development and trajectory of disease, we can develop better ways to support patients and families throughout their cancer experience.”
Researching Mind-Body Resilience
Using support from a 2020 Women Who Conquer Cancer (WWCC) Young Investigator Award (YIA), Dr. Taylor is analyzing data from a pair of clinical trials testing a resilience-building program in AYAs with cancer. She and her team are collecting heart rate variability data from regular electrocardiograms (ECGs) and from a small wearable device. These trials, led by Dr. Taylor’s mentor and YIA alum, Abby Rosenberg, MD, MS, MA, are helping to explore how heart rate variability corresponds with stress, anxiety and depression symptoms experienced by patients.
“We are seeing if heart rate variability is a good objective measure of stress, and if providing tools to improve heart rate variability could also improve patients’ symptoms. I believe that uncovering the mechanisms of the mind-body connection in cancer will allow us to improve both psychological and medical outcomes in these vulnerable patients,” says Dr. Taylor. “My WWCC YIA has provided critical support to help me begin this work.”
Strengthening Stress Management
Dr. Taylor’s research on stress responses may have major implications for improving supportive care, which addresses the symptoms of cancer and/or its treatments. Whereas interventions like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery target the cancer itself, supportive care considers how factors like stress shape the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of patients. This can look like medicines to alleviate nausea, infections, or pain; it could also take the form of social work and behavioral support focused on stress management.
“I think the most impactful piece for patients will ultimately be providing them with some objective feedback about how stress may be showing up in their body during their cancer treatment,” says Dr. Taylor. “If we can develop more objective, precise tools for measuring well-being, this could help us intervene appropriately from the medical side, and help patients better understand what’s happening in their body.”
A heightened understanding of stress and mind-body resilience helps providers strengthen supportive care plans for patients like Z, who persevered through two years of chemotherapy before experiencing recurrence. The unpredictable nature of some diseases fuels Dr. Taylor’s work uncovering new possibilities for supportive care so that patients with pediatric cancers are better equipped to manage their symptoms and reach optimal outcomes.
“My YIA research can help Z and patients like her whose cancer has come back receive the right supportive care for them. Choosing the right chemotherapy is important, as is choosing the most appropriate supportive care,” says Dr. Taylor. “As we learn more from patients like Z how stress and cancer are related, we can choose the right intervention for the right patient at the right time.”
Crafting Better Care
As Z triumphs through treatment for leukemia, her knack for beaded jewelry continues to shine. Z’s creativity and optimism are among many motivators fueling Dr. Taylor to conquer cancer.
“I don’t know what the future holds for my sweet patient and her family, but I do believe that bringing cutting-edge clinical discoveries to these kids opens up a world of possibilities,” says Dr. Taylor. “And as I look down at my brand-new beaded bracelet, I’m incredibly hopeful for what’s next.”