Doctor fighting cancer ‘to the end’
By Gercine Carter
Dr Juliet Daniel lost her mother to cancer.
In 2009, she also received confirmed diagnosis of breast cancer.
The news was a shock to the Canada-based Barbadian cancer researcher and professor whose name is known in the field internationally.
The impact of the disease that robbed Daniel of her mother, her neighbour, friends in the scientific community and other people whom she came to know over the years, is the impetus that fuels the passion to spend almost every day to get to the root of the awful disease, hoping one day a cure could be found.
She recently returned to Canada after spending some time on research here while on leave from Mc Master University where she runs an independent research laboratory.
On the eve of her return to Canada, she sat down with the Sunday Sun to talk about the Barbados mission, the personal experience with cancer and vision for conquering the disease.
Speaking above the din of traffic speeding past the family home on Culloden Road, St Michael, the former Queen’s College student explained she had been here engaged in a triple negative breast cancer study which she had started together with Dr Suzanne Smith-Connell and Dr Desiree Skeete at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
“I started the study after hearing at a cancer conference in 2008, that the triple negative breast cancer sub-type was most prevalent in black women and it was disproportionately killing black women. So when at age 46, came flooding back. She recalled that back then she was just days away from the convocation at Queen’s University and also “stressing out and wondering ‘am I going to die young too?”
“That was also part of my anxiety when I was diagnosed,” Daniel said.
This scientist was not ashamed to lay bare her fears at that time.
“At the end of the day, we are just human when you strip away everything else, The only difference for me was that I understood what cancer was more than the average person, so I could ask better questions of the doctors and the surgeons. But I was still afraid like everyone else because you do not know what is going to
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I had research leave in 2011, I decided to see whether or not triple negative breast cancer was also prevalent in Barbados and also killing young black women here.”
In the ongoing study, breast cancer data is being collected from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and Daniel was excited that she and the team hit a winning note.
“What we found so far is that Kaiso the gene that I cloned, is highly present in black women and it is more highly expressed in West African women and Barbadian women, than it is in African American women. So we think there is a genetic predisposition based on our ancestry in the slave route.”
Daniel’s work in the field of cancer research led to her discovery and naming of a new gene “Kaiso” which regulates the expression of genes that control cell proliferation and adhesion.
That Kaiso appears to be playing a role in the aggressive triple negative breast cancer afflicting Barbadian women, was described by Daniel as “the most exciting discovery so far with the Barbadian population”.
For Daniel, the subject is very personal, though she discovered her cancer was not triple negative.
“It was actually just before coming home one Christmas, I went to bed and just felt the lump as I lay down. I remember thinking ‘that does not feel right’.”
Ten days after the biopsy, she received the devastating news of the results.
“There was a whole bunch of emotions – fear, anger anxiety, shock – they all went through me and in 24 hours, I went from diagnosis to planning my funeral and then I called a friend [an oncologist].”
“When a woman gets a biopsy, the tissue that is removed is stained for three different receptors. The current treatment for breast cancer depends on the fact that the tumor expresses one of those proteins.
“Triple negative means they do not express any of those three proteins and currently none of the current drugs work on triple negative. So the only treatment for triple negative patients is standard chemotherapy.”
She said triple negative breast cancer “disproportionately affects black women, especially young black women typically before the age that women even start thinking of going for a mammogram”.
“For me here doing research, it was really hard for me to be reading here about a couple of the women that were diagnosed in their 30s and died less than two years after diagnosis.”
“That is really sad but it also pushes me to try to do something so that that does not happen to any more young women.”
She lauded Barbados for the “very good” efforts at promoting cancer awareness, but urged young women and men to get regular checks.
“Prostate cancer is also disproportionately affecting black men,” she observed, advising men that “to be forewarned is to be forearmed, even though I know a lot of men don’t like the exam”.
Losing their virility ought not to be the major consideration that kept them from getting tested, she suggested.
“Do you prefer to be virile and dead?”
“I think the high incidence of cancer in Barbados is multi-factorial. It is going to be connected to our diets, our lifestyles, smoking, environmental pollutants.”
Daniel has published in several top scientific journals and recognised with many awards, including African-Canadian Achievement, YWCA Hamilton Woman of Distinction, Ontario Premier Research Fellow Excellence and Barbados’ Gold Crown Of Merit.
She always wanted to do research, though not specifically cancer research. But her mother’s death from cancer and the passing of others close from the same disease drove her in that direction.
Like other researchers, she sometimes suffers frustration over the inability to receive the funding required.
“A lot of amazing scientists and a lot of amazing research is not being funded. . . . That is impacting the discoveries that could be made, the progress that could be made.”