Working to Battle Breast Cancer

Publication: The North Texan 

Katrina Emmett ('92 TAMS) is a Midlothian-based surgeon who treats breast cancer patients, while Alan Kumar ('93, '98 M.S., '03 Ph.D.) is researching metastatic cancer in Singapore.

Finding her path

Emmett always loved science and math, but she says she was destined to be a surgeon.

"There is nothing else I would rather do because I like to fix problems," she says.

Emmett treats breast cancer and other malignancies for Texas Breast Specialists in Dallas, Mansfield and Waxahachie. It's a job that tests her emotionally but plays to her intellectual strengths.

That's why she enjoyed her time at UNT's Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science and was always eager to participate in dissection projects.

"I like to know how things work," she says. "Nothing was too gross for me."

She completed her bachelor's degree at Texas A&M University and worked in the cell biology laboratory at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, conducting basic science experiments on cell signaling. She then taught science for five years at Good Shepherd Catholic School in Garland and in Richardson ISD.

But Emmett wanted to do the science, not just teach it, so she attended UT Southwestern Medical School. After graduation, she completed her residency at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, where a fellow resident's situation led her to specialize in breast cancer.

The resident told her she felt something in her breast. She was only 26 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months later. Emmett took her to all her appointments -- and she still keeps in contact with her friend, who now has five children and has had no sign of cancer for nine years.

When working with patients, Emmett remembers what her friend told her: "I wish somebody said it would feel like this."

About half of her cases involve breast cancer, and she can tell most patients they will be cured. But it's tough when the patient, especially one with young children, cannot be.

"How do you not cry? You do cry," she says. "You just have to let people know you're not their family member, but you can be empathic and understand how that is. I will say the single most rewarding thing is when patients come back afterward and say, 'Thank you for saving my life.' God is ultimately in control, and I'm the hands."

'Finish it in style'

In the cases where breast cancer metastasizes, Kumar tries to help women respond better to chemotherapy.

About 30 percent of patients with early breast cancer will experience a relapse with distant metastasis, in which the cancer spreads to other organs. But doctors don't know which women will respond to chemotherapy until six months after treatment.

Kumar, who is principal associate in the Cancer Science Institute of the National University of Singapore, is trying to determine the difference between the women who respond to chemotherapy and those who do not. He has made a breakthrough -- identifying DEAD-box protein DP013, which often connects to particular pathways that trigger cancer progression and resist chemotherapy.

This marker can help doctors determine if they should give a patient chemotherapy. It also can predict if the breast cancer will spread. If researchers are able to reduce levels of this marker, it could make chemo-resistant women respond to chemotherapy.

Kumar, who also is assistant professor of pharmacology at the National University of Singapore, wanted to be a medical doctor since grade school. He was inspired to come to UNT after reading the success stories of many alumni. In his third year of undergraduate work as a biology major, he was hired as a research assistant in the laboratory of James Kennedy, Regents Professor of biological sciences, and Kumar became so fascinated by research he decided to pursue his doctorate instead.

One of the best pieces of advice came from the late Gerard A. O'Donovan, professor of biological sciences: "You might not have begun the project well, but now it is your onus to finish it in style."
And Kumar continues on, working in his lab.

"The most personally fulfilling part of the job is getting to know not only patients' health but every aspect of their lives," he says. "Helping patients on so many levels -- and not only current patients but patients in the future."

Read the full story at The North Texan.

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