Meryl Bralower knows she’s lucky to be alive. In an unusual series of events, starting while she was doing Pilates exercises, she was diagnosed early with a dangerous and hard to detect form of lung cancer.
“Early cancer detection saved my life. Now I want to pass on the luck to others,” says Ms. Bralower, who has been cancer free for six years. She and her husband Michael Bralower, MD, have established the Michael and Meryl Bralower Fund for Innovation in Early Cancer Detection in support of the new Center for Innovation in Early Cancer Detection (CIECD) at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center.
The creation of the CIECD reflects Mass General Cancer Center’s emphasis on using new and more sophisticated tools to accelerate the early detection of all types of cancers to save more lives. The CIECD will foster collaboration and partnerships among Mass General Cancer Center experts and technology companies and entrepreneurs to drive forward the understanding of early cancer biology, says Lecia V. Sequist, MD, MPH, director of the CIECD. By bringing together scientists, clinicians and business people from the entire Boston biomedical community, the center will seek to develop new technologies and launch pilot trials leading to early cancer detection and better treatments for patients at Mass General and around the world.
“I’m very excited about this,” Dr. Sequist says. “I’ve been an oncologist for 14 years and I see mostly people with advanced disease who always wonder how things might have been different if they had been diagnosed earlier. We’d really like to move the needle forward on early detection to bring more curative options to more people.”
Researchers will be looking for biomarkers such as proteins, genes or metabolites in the blood, saliva or breath that indicate the early presence of cancer cells.
Early Cancer Detection
One of the challenges is that “cancer is so many different diseases, each with its own unique obstacles to detection,” Dr. Sequist says. “Now, thanks to this generous gift from the Bralowers, we can expand our work in a few cancers like lung, breast and prostate into what we have long envisioned, a center that bridges different cancers and finds common ground.”
Already, the CIECD has hired a full-time project manager to identify partners and move forward with research projects. The Bralower gift will also support the research of innovative junior faculty, who often struggle to find funding for their ideas.
Researchers will be working to identify biomarkers, such as proteins, genes or metabolites in the blood, saliva or breath, that indicate the early presence of cancer cells. “It’s like finding a fingerprint that gives direct evidence of a cancer,” Dr. Sequist says.
A Surprise in Pilates
Ms. Bralower, a health-conscious exerciser, felt chest pains one day in 2005 while doing Pilates. A chest X-ray revealed a slight shadow on her left lung. But Ms. Bralower, who had never smoked a cigarette, wasn’t worried. Then a follow up CT scan showed her left lung was healthy but her right lung had a tumor. She was eventually diagnosed with a type of lung cancer found most commonly in non-smokers.
“The diagnosis was devastating,” she recalls. But since it was early in the progression of the disease, she was successfully treated with surgery and chemotherapy. In 2012 the cancer recurred. This time, thanks to advances in medical research, her tumor was identified as having the ALK mutation, which informed her treatment, leaving her cancer free.
Today she marvels at her stroke of luck — the unrelated chest pains during Pilates that led to an early diagnosis. Lung cancer often goes undetected until stage IV, when it has already spread and can be incurable.
After regaining her health, Ms. Bralower became an advocate for early cancer detection and cancer treatment, marshaling her life experience as a therapist and management consultant to guide friends and referrals toward early cancer screening and appropriate therapies.
Another Scare, A Heartfelt Commitment
Most recently, Michael Bralower, a neurologist, had a cancer scare. His Mass General doctor discovered a cyst on his pancreas. Further investigation revealed it was benign, not pancreatic cancer — another cancer that often goes undetected until it is too late. But that was enough to reinforce the Bralowers’ commitment to advancing early detection research by supporting the CIECD.
“Early detection is our sweet spot,” she says. “Luck intervened for me and then Michael. Because of this new center, everyone can help make more people lucky by supporting Dr. Sequist and the CIECD.”
For more information about the Center for Innovation in Early Cancer Detection or to make a donation to the Michael and Meryl Bralower Fund for Innovation in Early Cancer Detection, please contact us.