Conquer Cancer: As a girl, Priscilla Brastianos' mother told her stories of the grandmother she never knew—a medical student who diagnosed her own fatal breast cancer. The legend of her grandmother who practiced medicine even in her final days inspired Brastianos to become an oncologist and physician-scientist. The death of Brastianos' mother from the same disease and the promise the young doctor made to her in her final days drives her unwavering commitment to conquer it. The 2012 Conquer Cancer Foundation Young Investigator Award recipient talks to mentor Evanthia Galanis about the personal and professional journey that honors her family and patients at every turn.
Dr. Galanis: So Priscilla, tell me about how you got into this line of work.
Dr. Brastianos: When I was very young, my mom told us about my grandmother in Greece. When she was 23 years old—she was in medical school at the time—they were learning how to palpate breasts on exam, and she palpated a breast mass and had just diagnosed herself with breast cancer. So she went on to graduate from medical school and then, even with metastatic breast cancer, practice medicine. Years later, my mother had spoken to people from that region and they all remembered my grandmother, even 20 years later, about the impact that she had on peoples' lives. And so I grew up hearing my grandmother's story and being inspired by her story as a physician, as a mother, and wanting to be like her, wanting to emulate my grandmother.
And so that's what got me interested in medicine and also in cancer. And when I was a third-year medical student, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. And there we began the journey of her chemotherapy, her surgeries, her radiation. And I knew that I wanted to change the course of oncology because of the suffering that came with cancer. So that's what got me into cancer and oncology was my grandmother's experience and my mother's experience. And ultimately, my mother passed away of metastatic breast cancer recently. And her death is a reminder every day that we need to do better for cancer. And So that's what drives me and motivates me every day.
Dr. Galanis: So your work is both a personal and professional journey. What do you like most about what you do every day?
Dr. Brastianos: Being able to help a patient on any given day is the most rewarding part of what we do. Patients are incredibly selfless and generous. Often they'll participate in studies that may not necessarily benefit them personally, but they know that they're helping the greater good. The patients, the strongest person in the room when we're seeing patients and their families. And they're stronger than all of us combined. Many patients are heroic in their resilience in what they teach us. Their strength inspires me.
Dr. Galanis: I would think that the legacy of your mother helps you to push just a little bit further that otherwise you would normally have.
Dr. Brastianos: One thing that I hadn't appreciated before was we had transitioned my mom to hospice, and hospice was actually one of the most beautiful times of our life. And so we had some meaningful moments that I carry with me every day. The day before she passed away, we were laying next to her in her hospice bed, and she said that those few days in hospice were among the happiest in her life with us, being surrounded by family. And at that point, she said that she had felt so much love from her family in that setting that she was no longer afraid of death and that she knew that the love of her family was going to accompany her always in her next journey. In oncology, talking about end of life, we often feel like we're giving up. But I have a new appreciation for end-of-life care now, that we're not giving up, we're transitioning to a different stage of care. It's made me a better oncologist.
Dr. Galanis: What advice would you give to either young oncologist or medical students who are interested in oncology or interested in a path of combining research with clinical care?
Dr. Brastianos: So I always go back to advice that my mom gave, which is don't be afraid to be bold. And don't be afraid to pursue big ideas. And don't be afraid to follow your dreams and passions. So if there's an idea that you'd like to pursue in research or in medicine, go for it and don't be afraid, even if it's not status quo.
Dr. Galanis: In those hard days, what is it that inspires you? What keeps you motivated to continue?
Dr. Brastianos: Two days before my mom passed away, she took my hand and my brother's hand and she made us promise that we were going to find better treatments for patients with cancer. She made us promise that we were going to live our life to do better for patients. And both me and my brother made her that promise that we were going to dedicate our lives to it. So when I have a tough day, I hear her voice, and I'm going to live up to that promise.
Conquer Cancer: The Conquer Cancer Foundation's mission is to conquer cancer worldwide by funding breakthrough research and sharing cutting-edge knowledge. To learn more about the participants in this session and others like it, please visit conquer.org/storycorps.