Author Archives: Jen Power

Let’s Talk Cancer


On Wednesday, May 18th 2016, approximately 250 grade 7-12 students from 6 schools across Kingston and the surrounding area gathered at Queen’s University to learn more about the field of cancer research during the second annual Let’s Talk Cancer Symposium hosted by the Kingston branch of the Canadian Cancer Society Research Information Outreach Team (RIOT) in collaboration with Let’s Talk Science, Queen’s chapter. The outreach event began with introductions by Dr. Roger Deeley (Vice-Dean Research, Faculty of Health Sciences), Dr. David Berman (Director, Queen’s Cancer Research Institute), and Doug Kane (Manager, Canadian Cancer Society, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington & The Waterways Community Office). The students were then shown a real-life example of the impact of cancer research through a video about Elana Simon, a teenager diagnosed with fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma who worked at Rockefeller University to identify the mutation underlying the disease.

To provide the students an overall introduction to cancer biology, RIOT members presented on important aspects of cancer research, such as cancer biology, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, stem cell therapy, and hot topics in cancer research. Keynote addresses were presented by Dr. Michael Brundage (Director, Cancer Care and Epidemiology), Dr. Andrew Craig (Associate Professor, Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) and Dr. Lois Mulligan (Professor, Pathology). While Dr. Brundage spoke on the complex decisions a patient has to make after being diagnosed with cancer, Dr. Craig spoke about the exciting field of precision medicine, and Dr. Mulligan emphasized the importance of collaborating in the field of cancer research. After a morning of talks, students enjoyed lunch partially sponsored by Pita Pit and had the opportunity to speak with Queen’s Admissions and Career Services as well as peruse research posters from RIOT members.

In the afternoon, students were divided into groups to participate in hands-on sessions. The highlight of the afternoon for most students was the anatomy museum. With the expertise of Dr. Bruce Elliott (Professor, Pathology), students were able to see first-hand what cancer does to the body in order, emphasizing the complex anatomical nature of this disease. A look into the world of medical physics and imaging with Dr. Andrew Kerr (Associate Professor, Oncology and Physics) gave insight into the medical physics facilities at Queen’s University while explaining the importance of medical radiation. Another highlight was the career session with RIOT members and Siobhan McArdle (SE Ontario Regional Hospice Education Coordinator) where interactive activities were used to introduce students to the various careers that are possible in the field of cancer research. Overall, the day proved to be an interactive and educational experience for students and we hope it helped inspire the next generation of cancer researchers.

This article was written by Catherine Crawford-Brown, a M.Sc candidate in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, and part of the Collaborative Graduate Program in Cancer Research at Queen’s University.

Celebrity Cancer Series: Angelina Jolie

In 2013, Angelina Jolie, the American actress, filmmaker and humanitarian, and receiver of numerous awards, made the difficult decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy. Two years later, Jolie underwent another preventive surgery—this time, her ovaries and fallopian tubes were removed. Jolie lost her mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer. A simple blood test revealed that Jolie carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, giving her an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of developing ovarian cancer. Learning this, Jolie took her health into her own hands.

With an estimated 25 000 Canadian women being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, breast cancer continues to be the most common cancer among Canadian women and the second leading cause of death from cancer. Choosing to undergo preventive surgery is not a light decision; however, a woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer  greatly increases if she inherits a harmful mutation in BRCA1.

There is a common misconception that women “inherit the BRCA1 cancer gene” and that this will eventually cause a woman to develop cancer. Contrary to this belief, we need the BRCA1 gene. This gene produces proteins that help repair damaged DNA and ensures the stability of our genetic information in our cells. However, when this gene is mutated and the protein is not produced or is not functioning properly, DNA damage may not be repaired properly causing the genes in our cells to accumulate more changes that can lead to cancer.

Although 55-65 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA1 mutation will develop breast cancer and approximately 39 percent will develop ovarian cancer, testing positive for this mutation does not reveal that an individual will certainly develop cancer; it reveals only that they are at an increased risk. It is important to remember that other characteristics of a women can increase or lower one’s cancer risk, such as one’s reproductive history and physical activity levels. Still, less than half of breast cancer cases can be explained by well-established risk factors. Ongoing cancer research efforts here at Queen’s University will hopefully allow us to understand and treat this disease better, and eventually improve our chances for preventing this disease.

This article was written by Carmen Chan, a MSc candidate in the Department of Public Health Sciences at Queen’s University, and a Canadian Cancer Society Research Information Outreach Team (RIOT) member.

Celebrity Cancer Series: Michael Hall

Michael C. Hall is an American actor born in 1971 in Raleigh North Carolina. He began his acting career in theatre, appearing in numerous Off-Broadway shows, before taking the stage in Broadway shows like Chicago, and Cabaret.  His first major television role was playing David Fisher on the drama series “Six Feet Under”.  More recently, he is best known for his starring role as the vigilante serial killer Dexter Morgan on the crime drama “Dexter”. In 2010 at the age of 38, Hall announced that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, and was undergoing treatment for the disease.

Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer that arises in cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell, and are part of the immune system and help fight infection. These cells travel through a network of vessels called lymphatics, allowing them to move from lymph nodes and lymphatic organs, like the spleen and bone marrow, to sites of disease and infection. There are two main types of lymphocytes, called B cells and T cells. Abnormal B cells typically cause Hodgkin lymphoma. These cells no longer behave properly, and grow at an enhanced rate.

Because lymphocytes travel all over the body, the cancer can present anywhere. It is usually first observed as an enlarged lymph node, but can spread to almost any tissue or organ in the body. Michael first noticed lumps in his neck, which he jokingly referred to as looking like “alien eggs”. When biopsied, these lumps revealed that he was suffering from Hodgkin lymphoma; the same news that close to 1,000 Canadians receive each year.

Fortunately, Hodgkin lymphoma is often curable when detected early. It is most commonly treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. Michael began a course of treatment after filming the fifth season of “Dexter”. He experienced some of the unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy such as hair-loss, which was particularly devastating for an actor whose career involves being in the public eye.

After completing his treatment regimen, he was declared in full remission later that year. With healthy blood cells, Michael returned to his role as a blood splatter analyst on “Dexter” and went on to film three more seasons of the popular show. He remains in remission to this day.

This article is written by Kathleen Watt, a PhD candidate in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, and part of the Terry Fox Foundation Training Program in Transdisciplinary Cancer Research in Partnership with CIHR.

2015 Canadian Cancer Statistics released by the Canadian Cancer Society highlights importance of cancer research

Cancer remains the leading cause of death among Canadians. The Canadian Cancer Society, in partnership with Statistics Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, released the annual 2015 Canadian Cancer Statistics report in May. This report provides comprehensive statistical information on cancer in Canada, including incidence, mortality and relative survival rates. These statistics are vital to the progress and promise of cancer research, by informing health professionals, policy leaders, and researchers to help improve the quality of life for cancer patients and survivors and reduce cancer incidence and mortality rates.

CCS 2015 ReportWhile the number of cancer cases is on the rise, the survival rates continue to improve compared to what was observed over 10 years ago. Unique to this year’s report is an inclusion of a section on the future burden of cancer in Canada – in fact, it is expected that the Canadian cancer incidence rate, or the annual number of new cancer cases, will rise 79% by 2028-2032 in comparison to the rates from 2003-2007! While our aging population is the main factor for this dramatic anticipated increase in cancer rates, this report highlights the importance of expanding our cancer research efforts in order to further understand the complexities of the different diseases that make up cancer, which will ultimately lead to earlier diagnosis and new treatment advances for the growing number of people diagnosed with cancer.

Researchers at the Queen’s Cancer Research Institute (QCRI) in Kingston, Ontario are actively exploring various aspects of cancer research, including understanding basic cancer biology, performing relevant cancer clinical trials, and conducting cancer etiology (causes) studies at the population level. QCRI researchers share hopes of developing novel prevention, detection and treatment options for cancer.

One such researcher is Dr. Christopher Mueller, who is currently working on developing a blood-based cancer detection test that will allow for earlier and more accurate diagnosis of cancer in the near future. The Queen’s campus is also home to the NCIC Clinical Trials Group, consisting of researchers, clinicians, and biostatisticians, among others, that develops and conducts cancer clinical trials across Canada, and internationally.

Ongoing cancer research efforts at Queen’s University, across Canada, and globally, will hopefully allow us to effectively combat the anticipated future burden of cancer in Canada.

For full access to the Canadian Cancer Statistics publication, please check out the Canadian Cancer Society’s website:

This article is written by Piriya Yoganathan, a PhD candidate in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, and part of the Collaborative Graduate Program in Cancer Research at Queen’s University.