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Stowers scientist’s battle with breast cancer comes full circle

Heather Marshall's decades-long professional pursuit of studying mice became intertwined with her personal journey to conquer cancer.

23 May 2023

In November 2016, Heather Marshall, Ph.D., Director of Model Organism Research at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She received her diagnosis of invasive ductal carcinoma after discovering a lump in her left breast during a routine self-exam. Despite a previous negative 2D mammogram result, Marshall's intuition drove her to seek immediate medical attention, leading to a biopsy that confirmed what she thought.

Marshall's decades-long professional pursuit of studying mice became intertwined with her personal journey to conquer cancer.

"It's quite surreal that my entire career has revolved around caring for mice, and yet, they ended up playing a crucial role in saving my life," she said.

Marshall credits foundational research, like that done at the Institute, and the countless cancer patients who long for breakthroughs and cures in clinical trials for providing the knowledge and scientific advancements that led her to eventually live cancer-free. “I am eternally thankful to the patients and scientists,” she explained.

Recalling the initial days following her diagnosis, Marshall explained, "Those were undoubtedly the toughest days, filled with uncertainty and fear of the unknown."

Her cancer was identified as HER2 positive—a particularly aggressive and fast-growing form.

"Had this been thirty years ago, my prognosis would have been significantly bleaker,” she shared. “However, biomedical research, with the remarkable contribution of mouse models, has revolutionized our outlook. Today, the prognosis is excellent."

During her treatment journey, Marshall was faced with the challenging side effects of chemotherapy. "I lost my hair after the first session, but something remarkable happened after the second—it was as if the lump had vanished," she explained as she recalled what motivated her to remain positive.

In 2017, a monumental moment in Marshall’s cancer journey occurred. She gave a presentation to internal members at the Stowers Institute about her battle with cancer and how foundational research was critical for her survival. Marshall made the brave decision to remove her wig on stage. It was met with a round of applause.

"It was kind of a release. It felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “And now It's over. No signs of disease. I'm cancer-free," Marshall said with gratitude.

Marshall emphasized the importance of early detection, revealing that a 3D mammogram could have identified her cancer earlier. Inspired by her experience, she was determined to provide further accessibility to breast cancer screenings within the Stowers community.

"One day, a friend asked me about a mobile mammography unit, and I thought, 'What a game-changer that would be!'" she said.

Marshall discovered a mobile mammography bus through Diagnostic Imaging Centers P.A., that could be brought to the Institute at no cost.

Approaching the Institute's leadership team, her proposal received immediate support. She was thrilled. "This mobile unit serves between 35 and 40 people at the Institute every year, and that's significant," Marshall said. "When you consider that one in eight women will receive this diagnosis in their lifetime, at Stowers, that’s around 35 people,” she said.

The bus now visits the Stowers Institute annually to screen qualifying members.

“I couldn't be prouder. I am sincerely grateful that I could make a difference,” she said.

Marshall said her fight with cancer is further motivation to continue the work she’s done at the Institute for more than 20 years.

"Every day, we make strides. In the animal models we study and the questions we ask, we take small steps toward eradicating diseases,” she said.

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