NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but for Dr. Vandana Abramson, every day brings a heightened awareness of the disease.
Since 2009, Abramson has helped 3,000 women and about 10 men fight breast cancer through Vanderbilt’s Ingram Cancer Center. She is also involved in 50 clinical trials with the goal of finding new treatment protocols for breast cancer.
“I’m often the first person who really tells [patients] about their breast cancer,” says Abramson. “I think sometimes a lot of people fear the worst and they come in and the first thing I say is ‘you know, this is very curable!’”
Abramson sees patients two days a week at Vanderbilt’s Breast Center Hematology on Thompson Lane in Nashville. More than half of her patients routinely drive two or more hours to be under her care.
While News4 was following Abramson at the cancer clinic, she checked in on long-time patient Debbie Thomas who was diagnosed with in 2010 with estrogen receptor positive breast cancer. Thomas drives regularly from Kentucky for treatment as Abramson has presided over Thomas’ endocrine therapy to combat the disease.
“There are some very emotional days,” says Abramson. “It’s usually the days someone is being told they have breast cancer or they find out the cancer has returned.”
Abramson joined the Vanderbilt team after completing her Hematology/Oncology training at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She has served as an Associate Professor of Medicine for Vanderbilt and often gives lectures regarding current treatments for breast cancer.
“It was the patients on the wards that made me sure that I was going to pursue oncology as a career,” says Abramson. “Being told you have cancer can change your life in a minute and I felt connected to these patients and I wanted to work to eradicate the disease and - more than that - I wanted to help lead efforts to eradicate the disease.”
Abramson is involved with approximately 50 clinical trials at Vanderbilt. She is the Principal Investigator of twenty studies currently in progress at VUMC. She is also the national lead in three studies.
“Most are clinical trials of novel therapeutic drugs,” says Abramson. “We're looking at toxicity and survival rates. In most of these studies, we are looking at the cancer tissue to look at the cancer biology that may be driving the tumors to respond to the drug or to not respond.
Abramson also has several studies that are retrospective and examining variables and outcomes in different treatment protocols.
“At the end of the day what we’re trying to do is find better, less toxic treatments for our patients,” says Abramson. “We’re really trying to eliminate chemotherapy completely. Chemotherapy basically attacks all cells in the body. What we’re trying to do is find targeted treatment and figure out why a cancer is growing and go right after it.”
At Vanderbilt, scientists make discoveries within their labs and pass the discoveries onto doctors who convene on the best way to bring those discoveries to patients. They work closely with pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs with the goal of providing better outcomes in treatment.
“At Phase I what we’re really trying to figure out is if a drug is safe,” explains Abramson. “We start out at a very low dosage of the drug and we enroll three patients and we monitor them very closely. If they do well, then we move up to the next dose level and we enroll three more patients.”
Abramson explains the clinical trial continues until they reach a dosage level they deem safe and effective. They’ll then do an expansion of 20 to 25 patients, sometimes more. At that point, the doctors involved in the clinical trials decide whether the drug should be expanded further.
Dr. Abramson now leads three Phase II clinical trials that each involve 100 patients.
“Even with metastatic disease - Stage IV disease - we have found ways to make a lot of metastatic disease into a chronic disease so people can live for years and years,” says Abramson. “I have someone right now who thought she had two years to live 10 years ago and she’s doing just fine.”
While Abramson has served as life-saver to thousands of men and women, she is also life-giver to two children – Alex and Annika.
“They’ve known for a long time that mommy goes to work to take care of other mommies so that other kids can have mommies and I think they’re proud of that,” says Abramson. “They cut me a lot of slack because I come home late often and I’m often in front of the TV doing my work and they see that. I hope that they understand that it’s possible to derive a lot of satisfaction from your job even if it’s a job that can be all-encompassing.”
Abramson received her B.A. in English and Molecular & Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, she went to medical school at the University of Chicago. Abramson completed her Internal Medicine Residency at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and Hematology/Oncology training in Philadelphia.
“I’m just so grateful to have the opportunity to do this job. People really let me into their lives in a very personal way,” says Abramson. “I see patients 10 years later who look back and say ‘You know I thought that was going to be the worst part of my life but I learned to live life because of that diagnosis.’”