MDC2018 – Joseph Wrin

09 Apr 2018

1 in 8 was Joseph Wrin’s wife, this is his story.

Laboratory-based scientific research. It requires four years of university study, more if you pursue PhD study. Then you get a job… if you can find one. The success rate of applications for grant funding, the lifeblood of a research lab, has plummeted. People unable to secure a job frequently leave research to seek jobs in other areas. If you do land a job, the pay isn’t spectacular. The hours are long and weekend work is not uncommon. And there is no guarantee that your project will yield good results; after all research is about pushing the envelope looking novel aspects in human biology. The search for elusive new treatments.

Who would do it?

The simple answer is: scientists love their work. They put up with the hours in the lab, the less-than-inspiring pay and the frequent experimental disappointments because they can’t very well imagine doing anything else. But within this group of dedicated scientists, there exists a group of individuals who have a special passion for their work. Not surprisingly, many of these researchers work on cancer, because they have lost a loved one or had a personal experience with the disease. I’m one of those. Hi, my name is Joe and I am completing a PhD in breast cancer research because this disease took my wife Leeanne from me. And their mum from my kids. And left a hole in Australian research, because Leeanne was a scientist too. She was 49 when she died.

Why did Leeanne die? What did she do wrong that caused her to develop cancer? This is a common reaction to a cancer diagnosis, the person must have done something to deserve their condition. Like lung cancer. A lot of people figure lung cancer patients have brought it on themselves by smoking, not knowing that about 20% of men and 50% of women with lung cancer have never smoked, ever. Regardless, nobody deserves cancer, no matter what they’ve done.

Everybody wants to know why cancer strikes. But sometimes we must accept that some people are the victims of bad luck. If we could effectively prevent cancer, we would be. Maybe that will happen sometime in the future.

Nonetheless, we do know some risk factors for breast cancer. Leeanne ticked some the risk boxes, but not all. She was a healthy weight, didn’t drink to excess and had never smoked. She did take birth control for some time, which increases risk. She had her kids in her mid to late thirties, which also increases risk, but then breast fed them for 18 months each­­­­­­– longer than most mothers—which is protective for breast cancer. There was no history of breast cancer in her family so it’s highly doubtful it was due to genetic predisposition. She worked in the lab when scientists used a lot of radioactive substances. I doubt that would have increased her risk but, then again, who knows?

No, Leeanne didn’t deserve to get breast cancer any more than any young woman does. The tragedy is breast cancer affects young healthy women, women with young children. The cancers in young women are more aggressive and harder to treat. And of course, no one expects a woman in her thirties or forties to develop cancer, which in turn may delay diagnosis and make the outlook even worse.

This is the experience Leeanne had, a very unfunny comedy of errors she didn’t survive. Leeanne found the lump in her breast and had a mammogram. The image didn’t look right and the doctor wanted her to get a biopsy. The biopsy came back indeterminate; the doctors couldn’t confirm a cancer diagnosis but neither could they rule it out. She needed a follow-up biopsy but she couldn’t face it and delayed for some time. Was that a mistake? Absolutely. Do I regret not nagging her to see a doctor? Yes, every day.

By the time she got her diagnosis, it was too late. The cancer had spread. Her oncologist, the doctor who administers chemotherapy, gave us the bad news of her expected outlook: between twelve to eighteen months to live. How do you process that? How do you get up in the morning knowing you might not be here the same time next year? She asked me to tell the kids. How do you tell a seven year old and a nine year old their Mum is going to die? I couldn’t. I said she was really sick and it would take a long time for her to get better.

Leeanne didn’t know how to give in though, never accepting she wouldn’t get better. She was always concerned her disease was upsetting the people around her and took pains to reassure her visitors that she was doing well. She would make the kids’ lunches every day even though she was bedridden with bone pain. She kept the house ticking over as it always had, only she and I knew how bad the situation was.

And then there’s the bittersweet happening that tears at my heart still. Leeanne had chemotherapy, a nasty drug called doxorubicin that happens to be a lovely orange colour. She completed her course of chemo and her breast tumour disappeared. The oncologist was amazed. But the cancer had already left her breast and lodged in her bones. Chemo doesn’t kill bone disease, it only keeps it under control. If she had gotten her chemo sooner, would she still be here today? I’ll never know, but it hurts to think about it.

Leeanne had many different treatments during this time: meds for her bones, anti-estrogen therapies, and lots of pain meds. The cancer went quiet for a while, but eventually came back. More chemo, but this time it didn’t even slow the progression. Lee got cancer in her lungs, then her liver. Then her brain, some days she couldn’t talk. She became weaker and weaker as the pain grew worse, until it was intolerable. I could no longer look after her and moved her to hospice care. Her pain wasn’t controllable even there, so she was heavily sedated. The doctor said “She can hear you, tell her to let go.” And so she did. She had fought as long as she physically could and had lived three and a half years past her diagnosis. She had nothing left. She died the next day.

And that’s why I get up each day, go to the lab and do my best to find a way to defeat this disease. In this fight, I join many breast cancer researchers spread across Australia and, indeed, the world.  And we are all working hard to find new treatments, new preventative measures and, of course, the Holy Grail: a cure. The Mother’s Day Classic and the National Breast Cancer Foundation are at the forefront of this fight, providing the funding needed to keep breast cancer labs turning out results that will translate into new treatments. They are absolutely vital to fight against breast cancer in Australia, we seriously could not do this without them.

Joseph Wrin
PhD Candidate
School of Medicine/Discipline of Surgery, The University of Adelaide