Health Team

UNC researchers asking women for after-death donation of tumors

Posted October 8, 2015 5:30 p.m. EDT
Updated October 8, 2015 6:20 p.m. EDT

WRAL Health Team

— For many women with advanced stage breast cancer, there's a time to plan their end-of-life care. But that doesn't mean they can't help other women diagnosed with the disease.

Doctors say those women can make a special donation that may move researchers closer to a cure.

Alisha Williams, 51, was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis and stage 4 breast cancer in April 2012 after going to an emergency room with symptoms of extreme muscle weakness.

Despite aggressive chemotherapy and radiation for her breast cancer, it had spread to her bones and other organs.

UNC's Lineberger Cancer Center researchers now approach many women like Williams about an after-death donation of their tumors. UNC breast cancer researcher Dr. Lisa Carey says studying end-stage tumors reveal how they evolve over time.

“We have the primary tumor, the original cancer. We often mostly don't have samples of the actual cancer once it comes back in an aggressive form,” Carey said. “To scientifically understand the actual cancer after it occurs is much more important than how it started.”

“That gives us some idea of when we give treatment and cancers become resistant, how they do it,” she added.

Carey says cancers often look different in the lungs, the liver or the brain.

“What are the shared features that cause it to be able to metastasize?” she said.

Those answers will come from women who are in end-of-life care, like Williams, who still want to fire a parting shot at breast cancer.

“I just want to do good, you know? I just feel it's the reason I'm going through it right now,” she said.