Cancer center experts offer insight for staying healthy during the pandemic

Cancer center experts offer insight for staying healthy during the pandemic

By Candace Gwaltney

Monday, November 16, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, cancer center experts offer ways to stay healthy this fall and winter.

Dealing with stress

With so much uncertainty in the continuing pandemic, researcher Shelley A. Johns, Psy.D., says it has become a chronic stressor for many people.

Johns is an associate professor of medicine at IU School of Medicine and a research scientist at the Regenstrief Institute’s Center for Health Services Research. Her research focuses on reducing suffering among cancer survivors.

Her most recent study involved breast cancer survivors who had been struggling with clinically significant levels of fear of recurrence, which is common among survivors. The study found that a mindfulness and values-based intervention showed the greatest promise in helping support breast cancer survivors in improving quality of life after treatment ends.

Johns shares how these same mindfulness practices could reduce fear and stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Getting a flu vaccine

Flu vaccinations are important every year for cancer patients and survivors as well as their family and friends, Greg Zimet, Ph.D., said.

Zimet, professor of pediatrics at IU School of Medicine, researches adolescent and adult vaccination issues with a focus on the HPV vaccine. Since the mid-1990s, his research has focused on what drives people to choose or not choose to vaccinate and developing communication messages around vaccinations.

Zimet and colleagues are evaluating how the pandemic may affect flu vaccination rates this year.

“We found that about 26 percent of people who did not get a flu vaccine the previous season intend to get a vaccine this current season, so that was encouraging,” Zimet said.

Zimet discusses why flu vaccines are important every year for cancer patients and survivors, but particularly vital with the added threat of COVID-19.


Why now is a good a time to quit using tobacco

Debi BucklesBuckles

People who smoke or vape are at a higher risk of getting COVID-19, partially because they bring their hands to their mouths more frequently. Debi Hudson Buckles, a tobacco treatment specialist at the cancer center, says now is a good time to reduce the risk of severe COVID-19 infection by quitting smoking and vaping.

Researchers have found that among patients with the virus, individuals who currently smoke or previously smoked had nearly double the risk of the disease getting worse, compared to non-smokers.

“Smoking and vaping have been shown to negatively affect the lungs and the immune system, putting those who smoke or vape at a greater risk of becoming infected and having worse outcomes from COVID-19,” Buckles said. “Cancer treatment can also weaken the immune system, increasing the risk of infection and worse outcomes for patients.”

For resources to quit tobacco, current IU Health cancer patients can call 317-944-8835. Others can call 1-800-QUIT-NOW for assistance.


Keeping up with preventative screenings and cancer care

Even during a pandemic, cancer diagnoses don’t stop. Preventative screenings and regular check-ups often lead to that diagnosis. While many of those screenings halted during the height of the pandemic, Kathy Miller, M.D., emphasizes why it’s safe—and critical—to resume those appointments, especially for patients who are high-risk for cancer.

Miller is the associate director of clinical research and co-leader of the breast cancer research program at the cancer center and Ballve Lantero Professor of Oncology at IU School of Medicine. Her research focuses on developing new treatments for breast cancer.

An National Cancer Institute model that looks just at breast cancer and colorectal cancer predicts there will be 10,000 excess deaths in the United States. over the next 10 years because of pandemic-related delays in diagnosing and treating these tumors.

Miller talks about the importance of preventative screenings and how clinicians have changed cancer care during the pandemic.

November 19, 2021

On  Nov. 1, Huda Salman, MD,  became the first executive director of the Brown Center for Immunotherapy. As a physician, she has been recognized as a Castle Connolly Regional Top Doctor, and she is among Castle Connolly’s Exceptional Women in Medicine in addition to other notable awards. As a researcher, she leads several clinical trials focused on lymphomas.

A leukemia survivor herself, Dr. Salman says her experience absolutely influenced her career in cancer care and research. She was previously at Stony Brook University and the Stony Brook Cancer Center, where she founded the hematological malignancies section, the CAR T-cell program, as well as the Adolescence and Young Adult Program.

Dr. Salman answered questions about what brought her here, her research, and more.   

Q. What attracted you to IU and the Brown Center?

A. The abundance of potential and the enthusiastic team spirit that I sensed in everyone I met here at IU to build a state-of-the-art center that offers a nice array of novel immune-based therapies.

Q: What projects are you most looking forward to working on in the Brown Center?

A: I would like to start with the on-site manufacturing of CAR T-cell therapies for cancer. I plan to then study and create different combinations of those and other immune-based approaches or other therapies to harness the best possible benefit for the patients. Establishing the GMP facilities equipped with FDA-approved standards for clinical research is almost ready to go.

Q: Where do you see the Brown Center five years from now?

A: Up and running, fully staffed, providing state-of-the-art trials and therapies and expanding on new research and clinical trials. I also see the center with more secured funds to continue to expand.

Q: How do you see immunotherapy transforming the future of cancer treatment?

A: Cancer treatments have a lot of toxicities, lack specific targeting of cancer cells and tissues and are mostly short-lived responses. Utilizing the immune system’s potential to fight cancer has been proven to overthrow these traditional limitations and provide the specificity and improved toxicity profile we need. Also being part of the vitality and life of a normal but augmented immune response, immunotherapy has the potential for much longer duration and longer-lasting efficacy. And this is exactly how immune therapy is transforming cancer treatment approaches.

Q. What do you find most exciting about your cancer research?

A: Discovery and application, moving the field forward, helping cancer patients and inspiring junior researchers to stay the course and be productive.

Q. What is the most rewarding part of being a physician?

A: To me, it is giving the best I know to those who need it and then watching it work! It helps my patients and satisfies my confidence in what I have spent years and years learning and optimizing.

Q: As you look back on your career, which cancer research advances most stand out to you?

A: Targeted therapy. Defining how cancer cells are different from normal cells allows researchers and clinicians to get them right there where they outsmart their normal counterparts through acquired advantages.

Q: What are the biggest questions in cancer research that keep you up at night?

A: How do cancer cells survive almost no matter what we throw at them? How do they outsmart us, the body and their environment? When and how do they acquire their advantages over the immune system and other defense mechanisms the body surveys all the time?

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?

A: I love the outdoors, I love pets and I am an animal advocate. I run, walk my puppy Semsem, play my piano and try to go to wherever classical music is played.

What is the most important thing you’d like people at IU to know about you?

A: That I am sincere in what I do. I am proud of what I accomplish, and I own my shortcomings.


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