Breast Cancer Survivor Uses Personal and Professional Experience to Help Others

Rensselaer researcher Deborah McGuinness devised novel ways to help patients and doctors

November 1, 2022


Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor of Computer Science, Cognitive Science, and Industrial and Systems Engineering Deborah McGuinness was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly 10 years ago. Her treatments were emotionally and physically challenging: McGuinness endured six months of chemotherapy, 33 radiation treatments, and four surgeries before emerging with current “no evidence of disease” status. Throughout, McGuinness struggled to find appropriate information on her diagnosis and treatment.

“It was hard to find information on my diagnosis that a lay person could understand,” said McGuinness. “There was also a lack of evidence-based, personalized advice.”

McGuinness got to work. With the help of her colleagues at Rensselaer, she devised a platform for breast cancer patients to visualize their tests and treatment based on ever-evolving staging criteria. Patients can input the size of their tumor, the number of lymph nodes affected, if the tumor has metastasized, and their biomarkers to see what the recommended course of action is and how it may vary with different criteria and staging guidelines.

McGuinness did not stop there. Another challenge she faced after being diagnosed was understanding the detailed implications of having a rare CHEK2 mutation.

“I tried to wade through the literature, but it was difficult,” said McGuinness. “I even got friends to help me who had Ph.D.s in biology and other relevant areas, but it was still a challenge. I wanted to help myself and others diagnosed with the same mutation.”

To that end, McGuinness contributed to research published recently in JAMA Oncology.

“I had an unusual mutation on the CHEK2 gene,” said McGuinness. “The common mutation is what is in the literature, but did that literature apply to me? The research (in JAMA Oncology) found that other function-blocking mutations do indeed behave the same as the common mutation. Now, doctors have more evidence to support that results of other studies on function-blocking mutations on CHEK2 apply to my mutation.”

McGuinness had a breast cancer that responded very well to a targeted therapy, which she credits with saving her life. She also believes that advances in personalized medicine contributed to a better outcome in her case. This has motivated McGuinness to try to use her professional skills and expertise to help advance personalized medicine.

Targeted therapies and precision (or personalized) medicine are top objectives of Rensselaer’s recently-launched, New York City-based, Center for Engineering and Precision Medicine (CEPM), a joint center with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

“The data science research carried out by McGuinness in collaboration with clinicians represents a powerful example of how advanced science and engineering is helping to reshape the future of medicine,” said Jonathan S. Dordick, Institute Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer and co-Director of the CEPM.

Although McGuinness takes pride in helping fellow patients with her professional expertise, the greatest reward has been personal.

“It means a lot to me to be a spokesperson for breast cancer patients,” said McGuinness. “I have been very open about my cancer journey and a number of people have mentioned that it has helped them.”

Written By Katie Malatino
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