Faculty Focus Friday: Sarah Thayer


April 14th, 2017

Dr. Sarah Thayer (Photo courtesy UNMC)

Breast and Pancreatic cancer affects millions of Americans each year in many different ways. On this week’s episode of Friday Faculty Focus, KVNO’s student reporter, Brandon McDermott speaks with Dr. Sarah Thayer, associate director for clinical affairs and physician-in-chief of the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Dr. Thayer discusses difficulties for patients living with cancer as well as physicians and clinicians trying to better understand the disease.

Brandon McDermott: Dr. Sarah Thayer, thanks for joining me this week.
Dr. Sarah Thayer: I’m delighted to have this opportunity to speak with you.
Brandon: The focus of your research is to investigate genes that may contribute to the initiation, progression and regulation of patriotic and breast cancers. Specifically what is your focus in the area of research?

Dr. Thayer: My long term research and passion has always been to look at the genes that are fundamentally important in the initiation and progression of pancreatic cancer. Everybody knows the pancreatic cancer has a horrible prognosis and we need to do a much better job at treating this. In order to be able to design better, effective treatments for pancreatic cancer we need to know the key fundamental genes that drive its biology its behavior – why it’s so aggressive, why it’s so resistant – this type of research on allows us to identify the compartment and as well as the early genes and the early changes that may allow us effective early bio-markers and most importantly much better targets – so that we can get better drugs, so we can get better outcomes?

Brandon: You kind of touched on this you alluded to this a little bit. But why is pancreatic cancer so deadly and how can people pay attention to symptoms to be screened earlier?

Dr. Thayer: So first of all, I think you hit the fundamental question – there is no screening for pancreatic cancer – it’s not like breast cancer – it’s not like colon cancer. We don’t have a population that is identified to be a screen able population and even if we did our modelers for screening are not that effective. When you do get a symptom that’s actually related to the disease pancreatic cancer, it’s often too late. So, that makes it one of the more difficult cancers to identify.
Brandon: When it comes to breast cancer what are some misconceptions or some larger known misconceptions that you hear as a physician or clinician – about breast cancer?

Dr. Thayer: Well first of all breast cancer one of the key things I think that’s outstanding about breast cancer is that we have a huge number of survivors. But breast cancer is not one entity. If you’ve ever seen a breast cancer patient even within the same family – a breast cancer is not a breast cancer, is not a breast cancer. So there are huge numbers of variations that we use to effectively treat breast cancer so you’ll have a lot of people talking with one another and they’ll say, ‘Well, that’s not what my doctor did!’ But the key thing is we look and we evaluate the person individually.

We have to look at so many different parameters before we are allowed to deliver in an effective, comprehensive clinical plan. We have to look at the age that it presented with because that tells us a lot. We have to take a look at the patient’s personal history – we have to take a look at the patient’s risk factors for breast cancer, then we have to take a look at the stage. Believe it or not the stage is one of the most critical factors that basically allow us to figure out whether or not we add more things to her therapy or we are allowed to take things away.

Brandon: You worked for thirteen years at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. What did that time there prepare you for in your profession?

Dr. Thayer: I think many things. I’m very grateful for the time that I had at Mass. General Hospital. Certainly it showed me how to become a clinician scientist, the importance of clinical research, to work around very ethical hardworking people. However, I think my time there was much longer (than normal). I hate to disclose the time I was there, because it might give somebody an inkling about my age but nonetheless I had been there for over 23 years. I did my training there and they gave me an opportunity to complete my research, so I’m grateful to the Mass. General Hospital and the Harvard system for many things.

I think that it gave me a broad exposure to both clinical medicine as well as research – as well as how large institutions run – how surgical services work – which I have to say that the broad exposure and the experiences that I’ve had there, for so long, have all been internalized. I have to say that you have to look at all the experiences that these very smart people have taught you over your entire life. What you’re able to do is pick and choose from the experiences that they’ve given you to come up with a package that is uniquely your own and ultimately – I bring my education, my experience as a clinician – my experience as a scientist – here to Nebraska to develop what I would think would be the best cancer services that we can offer the nation.

Brandon: Dr. Sarah Thayer thanks again for coming on the show.

Dr. Thayer: Thank you very much it’s been a pleasure.

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