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Student survives cancer, gives back

Megan Doyle | Wednesday, October 26, 2011

During the fall semester of her freshman year, doctors diagnosed junior Courtney Rauch with breast cancer. Two years and numerous surgeries later, Rauch is now cancer-free and is actively involved in breast cancer research on campus.

“[Breast cancer has] kind of given me the mentality that you don’t wait for things,” Rauch said. “I try to make the most out of everything that I do here.

Coming in, I knew I only have four years here and I have to make the most of college, but the fact that I had to miss school and, occasionally, I thought I would have to stay home an entire semester … I dedicate myself to everything I do as much as I can.”

Rauch said her family and friends supported her throughout the past two years as her cancer returned over and over again. She stayed in school, but traveled home multiple times for doctors’ visits and surgeries.

“I have tremendous thanks for all of my friends, because freshman year — that’s a lot to handle,” Rauch said. “My friends did such a great job of keeping me positive.”

As an applied mathematics major and a breast cancer patient, Rauch said she was immediately drawn to a research opportunity with Department of Applied Mathematics chair Steven Buechler.

“He’s doing research where he’s not really finding a cure for cancer, but he’s finding out ways to group breast cancer patients so you know which treatment … they would respond to,” Rauch said. “The way it is now, a lot of people get chemo when they don’t actually need chemo. The chemo isn’t necessarily the best treatment to help them.”

Her experience with cancer helped Rauch dedicate herself to Buechler’s project.

“His research won’t necessarily affect me, but it is going to help other people who were in my position,” Rauch said. “Knowing how that felt — literally I was sitting there, and they were saying I could choose what I wanted my treatment to be. I was like, ‘I’m 19 years old, and I don’t know anything about this.’ Having that experience helps me understand what other women are going to feel.”

In his research, Buechler is developing an affordable test to determine the chance of relapse for breast cancer patients through genetic data. The test will allow oncologists and patients to make more educated decisions about cancer treatment.

“[The test offers] added information for the patient and the oncologist about what is really going on in that specific disease so you can plan a treatment that makes sense,” Buechler said. “[Courtney is] helping to understand when oncologists decide to give a certain type of drug or not … Identifying the right drug for them, that might be a lifesaver.”

Buechler became interested in applying math to disease five years ago. Breast cancer was a natural choice for his project focus because so much information was available on the disease, he said, and he began to compile genetic data from the National Institute of Health for his project.

“My test identifies four genes that, if they are turned on at a high level, the patient has a poor prognosis,” Buechler said.

Once marketed commercially and applied to real patients, the test would allow labs to compare a genetic sample to past samples and predict how the cancer will act in the future.

In order to understand the more technical biology behind breast cancer, Buechler consulted oncologist Dr. Rudolph Navari, the director of the Harper Cancer Research Institute. The Institute is a partnership between the Indiana University School of Medicine and Notre Dame.

“Right now we have about six people on campus, both at Notre Dame and the School of Medicine, who are doing basic science work in cancer and breast cancer,” Navari said. “They are working anywhere from developing drugs, to learning how breast cancer grows, to learning how breast cancer spreads.”

Genetic tests like Buechler’s could be a key to future clinical treatments for cancer, Navari said.

“One of the things that is also important is that if we use a genetic approach to these various cancers and find out which genes are important, then we may be able to alter these genes to prevent breast cancer,” he said. “Breast cancer is still the main disease that is predominantly, if not 100 percent, gene-based.”

Buechler said one in eight women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime, and more research means more steps toward a cure.

“I think it is extremely promising,” Buechler said. “There are a lot of advances that have been made and are being made. Every dime that has been spent has been well spent … It’s also a story of what advocacy can do. [October] is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and we’ve heard a lot about it.

All of that effort and attention and money and advocacy pays off.”

For Rauch, advocating for breast cancer awareness and research will continue to be important.

“I think one of the biggest things that I have learned is how much [cancer] affects everyone around me … knowing that it’s not just one person or their close friends,” she said. “It’s everyone that interacts with them on a daily basis … [Cancer research like Buechler’s] is a job I would love to do, to use my degree and help other people.”