Cancer Patient Becomes Cancer Immunology Research Scientist
I found a giant lump during a routine self-examination. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that it would be an incredibly rare malignancy.
Corrie Painter, Ph.D., has battled cancer from the bed and the bench. After being diagnosed with angiosarcoma in May 2010 and beating back the disease, the 40-year-old mother of two decided to dedicate her life to cancer immunology research.
As a CRI postdoctoral fellow, Painter is currently working at a University of Massachusetts Medical School laboratory, where she studies the adaptive immune systems of zebrafish—an animal known to be immunologically similar to humans.
She is also the co-founder of Angiosarcoma Awareness, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to funding research on this aggressive cancer, which affects less than 300 individuals annually and has a five-year survival rate of 30 percent.
We spoke to Painter about her many roles—survivor, researcher, mother, advocate—and her blog, Never Been Better, in which she writes with elegance and honesty about her experiences with cancer.
How did you discover that you had cancer?
Dr. Painter: It was about three years ago but I can remember every detail. I was just finishing up my graduate work in biochemistry and had a very picturesque life. I was getting my Ph.D. I had beautiful children, a very strong marriage, a really good network of friends and family. I was on a perfect trajectory to being very happy in this world. And then, I was lying in bed one night and brushed the back of my hand over my breast and found a giant lump. I’m pretty vigilant about doing breast self-exams, and I had just performed one two weeks before, and there was nothing there. So I knew this was a fast-growing thing, and that’s never a good sign.
At what point did you learn that it was an angiosarcoma?
Dr. Painter: Never in any of my wildest dreams would I have imagined that it would be an incredibly rare malignancy. I went to a number of doctors and my OB/GYN and everybody kept telling me, “It’s fine. It’s probably some benign condition.” I have no idea who decided that it would be a good idea for me to have a follow-up consultation with a surgical oncologist. I thought, ‘It’s going to be a waste of my time, but whatever, I’ll just go to put that last tiny bit of anxiety to rest.’ So I went, and the surgical oncologist felt the lump, and he said, “You know what? I need to take a fine-needle aspiration [biopsy] of this.” So he stuck a needle in it, and it bled like a geyser. At that point, I knew it was bad. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew benign conditions don’t have that much vascularity.
When did you get an official diagnosis?
Dr. Painter: I was driving in a parking lot and the doctor called and said, “Hi, you have angiosarcoma.” He didn’t ask where I was, or if I was sitting. I slammed the brakes on the car. I almost ran somebody over. I threw the phone to my husband. I jumped out of the car, and I collapsed on the ground and started wailing. It was quite a sight, I’m sure, for the students on campus. My husband and I went to a local park for about half an hour. We called our parents. I went back to my work and told my boss. It was as though time stood still for about three days. It was like we were navigating this weird dimensionless area where we couldn’t really move in any direction at all. And during that time, we saw a host of different doctors at different institutes trying to find out what was going on.
You eventually underwent surgery and chemotherapy. Following this experience, you decided to pursue a postdoc in cancer immunology. You’re now conducting immunology research on zebrafish with funding from CRI. Can you tell us more about your work?
Dr. Painter: Zebrafish have very similar immune systems to humans. Certain zebrafish are transparent. They’re not completely see-through like glass, but under a microscope you can image very deep into the fish without having to hurt it. I can manipulate each of the fish’s individual types of T cells, so that they will each look different. Then, I can put the fish under a microscope and watch the different types of immune cells interact in real time in a living organism. It’s just super cool. I love it.
How are you going to apply this to cancer?
Dr. Painter: It takes a while to get the tumor models up and running, since I’m cloning everything myself. I’ll be able to manipulate the tumor to turn genes within it on and off at whatever time I want. So I can wait until a tumor’s fully developed, and then I can say, “Hey, pump out this cytokine, and I’ll treat it with a drug.” And the tumor will start to pump out a cytokine, and then I’ll be able to directly see what effect that has on the rest of the immune system because I’ll be able to observe immune cells that I have altered to glow fluorescently. We’re actually going to branch out from melanoma and start working with an angiosarcoma fish model, so I’ll be able to literally study my own cancer in fish.
In addition to your research, you are also chairing Angiosarcoma Awareness, Inc., which you founded in 2010. What’s on the horizon for your organization?
Dr. Painter: We’ve raised between $50,000 and $100,000 every year. In addition, we partner with Cycle for Survival and raise anywhere between $75,000 and $100,000 annually that we direct toward a specific lab at Sloan-Kettering. Overall, between the work we do with the Cycle for Survival and what we do as a stand-alone entity, we’re generating a couple hundred thousand dollars a year going straight to angiosarcoma research.
You write so beautifully in your blog about your two daughters. How has your perspective as a parent changed since your diagnosis?
Dr. Painter: The first thing that comes to mind when you ask that question is the milestones for sure. I mean most people don’t pay much attention to each of the birthdays or when a tooth falls out, but every single one of those things is like a cherry on top of a wonderful ice cream sundae for me. I thought I was going to die after six months, and my major goal through this entire thing was to see my little one turn five-years-old. I thought it was an impossible dream. She turned five this past October, and so everything else is just icing and cherries and wonderful little treats on top of what I thought I wasn’t going to be able to have. I just appreciate it so deeply. I don’t know what’s underneath all of the icing and the cherries at this point, I just know it’s very sweet.
Originally published August 1, 2013.