The Inspiring Stories of Our Cancer Survivorship Leaders
Thanks to the input from knowing experts like Dr. Topalian and Dr. Shaughnessy, University of Cincinnati Cancer Center patients are truly cared for throughout their entire survivorship journey.
Read more below about their cancer journeys, the research they're working on and what it means to them to work in a space that hits so close to home.
Q: How long have you been with the UC Family and what’s your current role?
Dr. Topalian: I am the Research Scientist for Survivorship and Supportive Services at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center. I’ve been with UC for seven years—I came to UC in 2015 when I enrolled in the Master of Public Health program and received my first position as a UC employee in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, where I remained for 6.5 years before transferring over to Survivorship in November of 2022.
Dr. Shaughnessy: I have been with UC and UC Health for 25 years as head of the breast surgery program (I stepped down recently), and my current title and role at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center is the Director of Cancer Survivorship & Supportive Services.
Q: You’re a cancer survivor yourself—walk us through your journey with cancer.
Dr. Topalian: I was diagnosed at the age of 4 in 1998 with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Luckily, I went into remission with the use of experimental chemotherapy. My experience with childhood cancer inspired me to obtain a master's in public health and a PhD in Health Promotion and Education, and I completed my degree in 2020. Little did I know that in March of 2021, at the age of 27, I would relapse with AML—the first person to ever relapse after 22 years.
During my time in active treatment, I used every opportunity to network, participate in psychosocial programming and educate myself on resources available to patients in all stages of treatment. I was in treatment from March of 2021 through March of 2022, when I was finally able to return to work. I am still on a maintenance chemotherapy to help make sure I keep my status in remission—cancer is still a part of my everyday life with my chemotherapy treatments.
Dr. Shaughnessy: I found my own breast cancer with a self-exam on Martin Luther King Day, (January) 2019. I quickly switched my screening mammogram scheduled for that week to a diagnostic one; the small mass I felt did not show up. Thus, I had an ultrasound which showed the mass I felt, plus three others, all of which were close to each other and suspicious. Two masses were targeted for biopsy and revealed cancer; we assumed the others were as well. MRI supported that as well, and a suspicious area in the other breast that needed biopsy. That other area was biopsied and proved to be precancerous and needed excision too. I underwent bilateral mastectomies with bilateral axillary sentinel lymph node biopsies, bilateral tissue expanders, then completion left axillary lymph node dissection and portcath placement, then chemotherapy. Then I did proton beam therapy to my left chest wall, left axilla, left supraclavicular area and left neck, then a bilateral oophorectomy, an aromatase inhibitor, a bilateral implant reconstruction. I then had an infection of left implant with washout, then lateral removal and abscess washouts and was on antibiotics for the chest infection for 6 months; this was then followed by neratinib for a year as cancer treatment.
Q: Why is survivorship important? Tell us about what you’re working on and what’s new in the space of survivorship!
Dr. Topalian: We have multiple clinical registries that we have built with a learning health systems approach, so we are always improving on our processes with the patients at the center. I also am working to improve primary care for cancer survivors because there is often a disconnect between the primary care team and the oncology team in terms of proper follow up.
I am working on an incredible program out of Cedar Sinai called Emerging from the Haze, which is a group educational intervention to help survivors deal with cancer related cognitive impairment and its associated symptoms. I am working with organizations, such as OneVillage, to help bring supportive services to patients regardless of their location. I am most excited about the Flourishing Series we are offering patients and survivors that cover the different domains of flourishing with a cancer diagnosis.
We are also offering a new program that is a Guided Experience towards Wellness, which involves mindfulness, meditation and yoga. Alongside this, we are offering an amazing music therapy program this summer that is all about healing through drumming—I think these are all incredible programs that I am so excited to offer our patients. You can find more info here.
Dr. Shaughnessy: Survivorship matters because the treatment and its sequelae and/or complications affects your baseline physiology and mental attitude going forward. Everyone expects you to be back to normal—but your survivorship is a new normal, which may not resemble the old one as much. However, we can help cancer patients to optimize their function, cognition, mood and general health.
Exercise has been demonstrated to improve stamina as well as motor function and sleep. Sleep is critically important to allow for recovery. A diet that emphasizes a healthy diet is important in recovery but also in health maintenance. Monitoring for problems that could arise from treatments, such as hypothyroidism from radiation in the general area, hypercholesterolemia because of an aromatase inhibitor, swelling of an upper or lower extremity from developing lymphedema may each prompt referrals to your primary care doctor or a specialist who can help you toward correcting the issue!
Our program is unique in that we are one of the few in the nation to have many programs to offer—we’re comprehensive.
Q: What does it mean to you to work with cancer patients and survivors as a survivor yourself?
Dr. Topalian: I began working and volunteering in the cancer space from a very young age, starting work with nonprofits at the age of 5 and lobbying on Capitol Hill for the first time at age 10. I always knew that it was my dream and passion to work in oncology and help improve the lives of other survivors like myself. That is why I went to graduate school because I knew my future was destined to help others dealing with this terrible disease. I went through a program after my second treatment about creating a legacy, and I realized that I wanted my legacy to be working with cancer patients, advocating in the field and helping to improve the lives of others as much as possible.
I feel that I have found my true calling by being able to work in this role. I love my job and my team, and I wake up every day happy and excited to go to work. I am so proud and passionate about the work that I do. It has changed my life to be able to give back in this way. I know this is only the beginning. Being a survivor made me realize how much finding meaning in your daily life can change your outlook. I know I get meaning out of my life because of the work that I do helping others.
Dr. Shaughnessy: As a cancer survivor, this too has made me more of an advocate for my patients—even more than before! I helped with our radiology breast Imagers to advocate at the state level for the passage of House Bill 371, which allows for multiple additional methods of breast cancer screening for those who qualify. This means reaching out to the media to get the word out about survivorship, and how patients can improve their journey to wellness.
I also experienced a degree of chemotherapy-related cognitive impairment, so I understand that things can be confusing in the brain fog. I understand that there can and may be many bumps along the journey, as there was for me! But as a cancer survivor, I also see that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
When things need to be done, I push to get them done; my tenure at UC Health helps because I know the system. I was also involved with cancer survivorship peripherally since its inception, so it’s always been special and meaningful to me.