A Conversation with Dr. Katia Tonkin

She’s a lovely lady … but more than that, she’s an oncologist and a researcher at the U of A and Cross Cancer Institute, and she graciously agreed to attend the 2015 Tour Farewell Dinner. She’s of Russian ethnicity, but with a British accent … and yet she’s Canadian through and through. Her first name is pronounced “CUT-ia”. Her husband, Andrew, shares the same British accent, and I’m embarrassed to say that I was so involved with Katia that I forgot entirely to ask what Andrew does for a living.  (Snooping on the Internet later indicates that he’s likely another researcher — in nephrology.)

Katia is a member of the gyn oncology team with a special interest in new drugs and new drug combination trials in gyn oncology. Over the last two years or so, they have improved their clinical trial accrual so they can offer patients new treatment options that they are studying. In addition, they gain experience in new therapies, which is where the future for gyn malignancies are going, especially for ovarian cancer. She is currently involved in several innovative studies of compounds with novel action against cancer cells. Day in and day out, she deals with many breast cancer victims.

Katia told us that almost everything they use to fight cancer comes from some natural source. Who knew that chemotherapy is, essentially, all natural? That seems weird. She spoke about Yew trees. Their elements are used in cancer treatment.  One Yew tree works well on breast cancer. Another works well on other cancers.

Katia then spoke about the Cross specializing in smaller research projects. Researchers can go after smaller operating grants that let them explore ideas to see if they warrant further study, rather than waiting for major funding. This has been innovative.  Researchers get more excited because they can explore (which is their passion), rather than grinding out paperwork (which they hate) and then sitting and waiting.

It seems that the bottom line is that advances in cancer care aren’t single big discoveries.  They are many small discoveries across the whole range of human DNA.  (And didn’t we discuss earlier how unlocking the human genome got every researcher in the world excited?) We now know that everybody has different gene types and we respond differently.  That’s why the big gun chemotherapy drug called taxane works so well for many and doesn’t work at all for others.  (Hence the $1.3 million taxane-resistance study that we are funding this year.)

I brought up the strange things that researchers have discovered — like treating cancer with dandelion root or the bacterium responsible for tuberculosis.  How on earth do researchers come up with these ideas?  Are they smoking funny cigarettes? (She smiled but then explained how the connections might have been made in the first place.)

And yet, as we sat and talked, the conversation turned to nutrition and away from drugs! I tried a couple of times to turn it back, but nobody was having that!

It is Katia’s opinion that diet is very important when it comes to breast cancer … as is weight and exercise. These she sees as preventive, not curative. She believes that you cannot eat too many vegetables and fruits and that you should limit your red meat to a couple of times a week maximum. Had I been thinking, I would have asked if she saw any difference (in terms of cancer) between the grain-finished beef we get in the store and the grass-finished beef that my husband and I raise.  I know that grass-finished beef has way more omega 3 and 6 than grain-finished beef. (It has as much as most fish, though not salmon and sardines — but then, who in their right mind eats sardines anyway?) What I don’t know is whether that omega 3 and 6 is what helps keep you cancer-free or not. Should have asked.

As the evening wound down, Katia made a special point of thanking our riders for all they do to raise funds for breast cancer research. She especially commends our Longriders.  She cannot imagine being on the trail and riding for 23 days. It’s nice to hear it from the horse’s mouth like that! Thank you, Dr. Katia Tonkin.

 

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