UMass researcher lands $450,000 grant to develop a toolkit for breast cancer survivors

  • Rachel Walker, an Assistant Professor at the UMass Amherst College of Nursing, has received a career catalyst research award of $450,000 from the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer Research. The grant will help fund the work of her multidisciplinary team which will spend the next three years to develop an off-the-shelf survivorship support toolkit for breast cancer survivors. Walker is shown here Jan. 18, 2017 in a clinical exam room at UMass. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Rachel Walker, an Assistant Professor at the UMass Amherst College of Nursing, has received a career catalyst research award of $450,000 from the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer Research. The grant will help fund the work of her multidisciplinary team which will spend the next three years to develop an off-the-shelf survivorship support toolkit for breast cancer survivors. Walker is shown here Jan. 18, 2017 in a clinical exam room at UMass. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

@ecutts_HG
Published: 1/24/2017 5:29:08 PM

AMHERST — If all goes as planned in the coming months, doctors may soon be able to hand out a simple yet powerful toolkit to breast cancer survivors designed to help give them more control over their health.

That’s the thinking behind a project being led by University of Massachusetts Amherst scientists who are developing the off-the-shelf toolkit for breast cancer survivors with the backing of a $450,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer Research.

The mission of the Komen Foundation is to reduce breast cancer mortality, explained Rachel Walker, an assistant professor and nurse scientist at the UMass College of Nursing who landed the grant.

“We think that this could do that without necessarily developing a new pharmaceutical therapy [for breast cancer],” Walker said.

To that end, she said her team is developing a box that uses three principle components — self assessment tools ranging from a tape measure to a series of questionnaires about health and symptoms; support materials for identifying goals in relation to activities they wish to be engaged in or maintained and how to modify one’s environment accordingly; as well as tools to help monitor progress.

The $450,000, which is broken down into $150,000 for three years, is aimed at scientists who have held faculty positions for no more than five years, according to the Komen Foundation.

Sitting in an exam room in the Human Testing Lab in The Institute for Applied Life Sciences Wednesday afternoon, Walker discussed her research and the grant helping make it possible.

Survivorship support kit

The three-year Career Catalyst Award will help Walker complete a multidisciplinary project that will develop a survivorship support toolkit that strives to give breast cancer survivors a greater sense of control and less uncertainty about their health.

In doing that, a person’s stress would be reduced as well as the biomarkers that signal increased risk for cancer reoccurrence or mortality. Biomarkers are another way of taking the pulse of the body by measuring something in it, such as adrenaline, rather than counting heartbeats, Walker explained.

“Our problem is that when we experience stressors over time, chronically, the very things that help us react ... start to wear the machinery of the body down,” she said.

In Walker’s study, researchers are collecting biomarker information through saliva.

“We want to give people a way — no matter what their situation and whoever they are and what hats they wear — they can feel less stress, greater control, get hopefully better sleep, stay active and ultimately be in charge of their health,” she said.

In consultation with breast cancer survivors in the region, experts from various disciplines such as nursing, image recovery, spiritual care, sex therapy and occupational therapy, Walker aims to consolidate that information “down to an essential set of assessment tools that would come in a box.”

At the moment, Walker said researchers are envisioning the toolkit being introduced in follow-up care by primary care physicians or at survivorship clinics.

“We built this toolkit to not have to rely on telling clinicians to do x, y, z more than they are doing in their busy days,” she said.

Printed manuals that individuals can fill out like self health and goal assessments would also pair with web-based apps as well as wearable technology.

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of resources via the web,” Walker said.

A decision about what will go into the prototype, or prototypes, is expected in April.

To make the project possible, Innovation Fellows from UMass Amherst’s Isenberg School of Management and the Institute for Applied Life Sciences will be involved in product development.

One of the things the fellows have been helping researchers think through, according to Walker, is how to make the project sustainable even after grant funding runs out.

Other researchers include UMass Amherst kinesiology professor Patty S. Freedson and clinical assistant nursing professor and breast cancer survivor Lucy Carvalho, according to the university.

Rebecca Spencer of psychological and brain sciences and Joseph Jerry of veterinary and animal sciences at UMass Amherst are also taking part, along with Sarah L. Szanton from Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, Kathy Lyons of Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, Lisa J. Wood of Massachusetts General Hospital Institute for Health Professions and Dr. Grace Makari-Judson of Baystate’s Regional Breast Cancer Program.

As part of the research process, Walker and her team are seeking breast cancer survivors both male and female of all ages.

Those interested in taking part in the study can call or email dedicated, confidential lines at 413-345-6738 or thrive@umass.edu.

Research coordinator Brenda Mutai, a recent public health graduate, said so far about five to seven people have reached out to take part. The study needs between 40 to 70 participants, according to Mutai.

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.




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