This is what happened, pretty much. We were pressing our way through the underground animal facility. It was crowded. The doctor said to me that, Abramson Cancer Center has rules with these animals, for safety, our safety, the animals’ safety, you will see in just a moment. The voice of the late journalist John Diamond said in my head, cancer is a word, not a sentence. We approached the first security door. Card swiped. Entered. Moments later, we approached the second, covered our shoes in footies, our hands in rubber gloves. By the fifth and final door, we were draped from head to toe with layers of protective, antibiotic clothing. Head scrubs, rough to the touch gowns, white face masks, the works. We entered the mouse room and started our daily mice feeding. Some mice got chow with 60%-fat packed neatly, sterilely, into it. The rest got the 10%-fat chow. The 60% chow was actually blue. They say from all the grease. They also say it is equal to one Big Mac.
When we finished, the doctor asked me to look at something he held. I said, What is this, cancer? It was a piece of paper with a chart. Of course it’s cancer, he answered, but do you know the meaning? I did not. The chart had two diverging lines. One was blue. It suggests, and I think he took his time saying it for a reason, that maybe, just maybe, there is a connection between obesity and faster breast cancer recurrence.
At least for the mice, anyway.
I spent my summer researching breast cancer biology in the Chodosh Lab. More specifically, I am a TREC student researcher. The acronym stands for “Transdisciplinary Research on Energetics and Cancer.” When I first heard that, it meant next to nothing to me. However, TREC is super important to the world of cancer biology because it studies the relationships between obesity, exercise, and cancer. Additionally, TREC is studied across the nation by many other universities than Penn. My team in the Chodosh Lab focused our research on two aspects of TREC. The first concerns the relationships between exercise and tumor recurrence. The second, and more scrutinized, focuses on the relationships between body weight and recurrence. At first glance, the study is simple. Induce cancer, make fat, and wait for recurrence. The only “issue” is that we cannot give human beings cancer, make them fat, and watch them for months. Instead, we use mouse models. We can use these mouse models to make inferences about people. Our hypothesis stated that an increase in body weight would increase the likelihood of a quicker tumor recurrence. Although our study is still ongoing, the data we have collected suggests a supported hypothesis.
This opportunity did teach me a great deal about cancer biology, a great deal about lab work and genetics and animal husbandry and so on and so forth. I learned the correct way to pipette. I learned how to perform dissections on rats, rats that liked to be sung Disney songs while being handled. Yet, these are not the skills I take away from my PURM experience. Rather, I like to think about how research pushed me to work harder for the “purposes” I care about. I like to look back at how conducting research built on my collaboration skills and bettered me as a presenter and a leader. Most of all, I think being given the opportunity to face off against a thing like cancer sharpened my curiosity. These value that have been strengthened by PURM are the ones that I am going to use during my education. I believe they will help me see the good in the challenging times I will most likely face as a college student. I do truly think that what I have just mentioned is important, and although it may sound corny, that food is still blue and the late John Diamond still says that cancer is a word, not a sentence.