AMHERST, Mass. – Rachel Walker, assistant professor and nurse scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst College of Nursing, has received a Career Catalyst Research Award totaling $450,000 from the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer Research, the world’s largest non-governmental breast cancer research organization.
Walker will work with a multidisciplinary team over the next three years to develop what she describes as an “off-the-shelf survivorship support toolkit” for breast cancer survivors. The work builds on research she conducted at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore during her postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Innovative Care in Aging.
While five Career Catalyst Awards went to clinical researchers this year, Walker’s is the only nurse-led team to receive the award.
According to Walker, breast cancer survivors can experience reductions in activity and functioning due to lingering symptoms and effects of ongoing therapies, exacerbations of pre-existing conditions and a lack of clear benchmarks following primary cancer treatment. Uncertainty of illness can also contribute to anxiety, stress and poor health outcomes.
The goals of Walker’s research include helping breast cancer survivors to take control of their health by identifying their own post-treatment goals and clear strategies to achieve them. The researchers hypothesize that by tracking their health using wearable technologies and making visible changes to reduce symptom interference with functioning and support goal achievement, breast cancer survivors will experience more control, fewer symptoms, greater activity, and reduced levels of inflammatory biomarkers associated with higher risks of additional morbidity and cancer recurrence.
Walker says that from a biomedical perspective, “some of the primary outcomes we are examining include objective measures of physical activity, sleep duration and quality, and positive changes in biomarkers associated with risk of cancer recurrence and mortality.”
“But the part of this work I find most exciting,” she adds, “is the opportunity to support survivors’ ability to do the things that are truly most important to them, and to have a greater sense of control over their health and well-being following cancer therapy.”
The team hopes to recruit participants from throughout the region who can speak to diverse perspectives. Men who have been treated for breast cancer, about one percent of all breast cancer survivors, are also sought to participate in this study.
Upon completion of the study, Walker and her team hope to have developed a scalable product that is widely accessible. Innovation Fellows from UMass Amherst’s Isenberg School of Management and the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) will be involved in product development. She says she sees long-term potential for the approach to be useful for maintaining wellness in a wide variety of health contexts and communities.
Working with Walker will be UMass Amherst kinesiology professor Patty S. Freedson, former vice-president of the American College of Sports Medicine and associate director of the IALS Center for Personalized Health Monitoring, as well as clinical assistant nursing professor and breast cancer survivor Lucy Carvalho. Carvalho is founder of the Rays of Hope Foundation supporting research and services for breast cancer patients in collaboration with Baystate Health.
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.
In addition to this research, Walker and her team have also received funding to investigate a new technology for assessing cancer-related fatigue. This work is supported by Rays of Hope and the College of Nursing’s National Institutes of Health-funded UManage Center for Building the Science of Symptom Self-Management.