Surviving and thriving after cancer

Woman sitting on cliff overlooking ocean

Rachel Vogel

Masonic beneficiary works to stop cognitive decline in ovarian cancer survivors

Even if cancer treatment is successful, many survivors deal with an entirely new set of issues ranging from physical side effects like heart problems or second cancers to emotional and financial hardships.

That’s why Rachel Isaksson Vogel, M.S., Ph.D., a member of the U’s obstetrics, gynecology, and women’s health faculty, is passionate about improving quality of life for cancer survivors.

Stopping “chemo brain”

With support from the Masons, Vogel continues to lead a study on “chemo brain” in ovarian cancer survivors. Chemo brain is a form of cognitive decline that affects 25 to 50 percent of ovarian cancer survivors who have had chemotherapy. Symptoms run the gamut in severity—they can be as subtle as forgetting where you’ve placed your keys or as severe as being unable to have conversations.

Researchers know very little about the risk factors for chemo brain, but with Masonic funds, Vogel is exploring the role of two potential culprits.

The first is a gene called APOE4, which predisposes people to Alzheimer’s disease. The second is vitamin B12 deficiency, which is linked to cognitive impairment. Although both are promising targets, Vogel is especially enthusiastic about the treatment potential if B12 deficiency is the cause. “If women are B12 deficient when they’re diagnosed with ovarian cancer or become deficient during chemotherapy, that could be pretty simple to fix,” she says.

Ultimately, Vogel and her colleagues hope to find a way to identify women who are most susceptible to chemo brain so that doctors can intervene early to prevent or ease symptoms. They are currently working to recruit 100 ovarian cancer survivors whom they will follow over time to better understand the role of APOE4, vitamin B12, and other factors. They hope to have results by the end of 2018 and, ultimately, to secure additional support to assess an even larger population of women and pursue treatment interventions.

Dedicated time for a dedicated passion

Cancer survivorship research has not always been part of Vogel’s career plan. She earned her master’s degree in biostatistics in 2008 and worked at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota for several years as a statistical consultant. During this time, two defining moments sharpened her focus.

The first was working with U public health faculty member DeAnn Lazovich, M.P.H., Ph.D., as the statistician on a highly publicized study showing the link between indoor tanning and melanoma. “It was a large study that had a lot of impact,” says Vogel. “It made me realize I wanted to do my own research.”

A few years later, Vogel experienced a personal tragedy. Her younger brother Phil, a star pitcher for the U’s Gopher Baseball team, was diagnosed with brain cancer. She became his primary caregiver.

“I realized that quality of life, no matter your prognosis or how long you’re going to live, is really important,” she says. “I learned that not a lot of people were researching this—it was something I became passionate about very quickly.”

In 2016, Vogel earned her Ph.D. in epidemiology and became a member of the U’s Medical School faculty. Unlike many of her early-career colleagues, she has been able to dedicate nearly all of her time to research, something that would not have been possible without Masonic support.

“Support from the Masons gives me the flexibility to do exactly what I want in cancer survivorship research,” says Vogel. “It has given me protected time to launch my career, which is rare for a junior faculty member. Most faculty at this level do not have time to do a lot of research—this support gives me that freedom.”

Learn more about chemo brain.

Read more about Dr. Vogel's work.

Better serving survivors

Each year, the University diagnoses approximately 300 new gynecologic cancer patients. Although these women receive exceptional care, opportunities abound to better serve them after treatment.

Rachel Vogel and her team hope to help these cancer survivors by launching a new research program. Called Gynecologic Oncology Life after Diagnosis, or GOLD, the program will follow survivors of a variety of gynecologic cancers over time to assess all aspects of their quality of life.

Vogel is working to recruit 500 women to participate in this ambitious initiative. In addition to providing valuable data that could benefit countless women, GOLD would give back to the U’s cancer survivors by making events and educational resources available to them throughout the course of the study.

“Often, we ask participants to be part of our research without giving something back,” says Vogel. “With GOLD, they’re giving us their survey data while we’re giving them events, newsletters, and other resources that educate and provide new opportunities to be involved.”

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