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Meet Dr. Kavanaugh-Lynch

Dr. Marion Kavanaugh-Lynch, MD, MPH is the director of the California Breast Cancer Research Program (CBCRP) based in Oakland, California. A native of upstate New York and having spent much of her youth in Buffalo, Dr. Kavanaugh-Lynch earned her bachelor’s degree in 1982 at Bryn Mawr College, her medical degree and master’s in science in pharmacology from New York University and a master’s in public health in epidemiology from the University of Washington. She completed her postgraduate training in medical oncology and in cancer prevention at The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Prior to joining CBCRP in 1995 she spent several years in research focusing on breast cancer treatment and research in women’s health, lesbian health and breast cancer. Her commitment to bringing women's voices into research and decisions about research drew her to CBCRP, a program that arose and continues to grow through the energy, wisdom and dreams of women with breast cancer. At CBCRP, she has managed the awarding of 1092 research grants to 158 different institutions across California, totaling approximately $296 million.

We recently caught up with Dr. Kavanaugh-Lynch to learn more about what led her to the CBCRP and her journey in waging a fight to put an end to breast cancer.

Q: Does research run in the family?
A: My father was a physicist with a PhD. He worked in industry most of his life doing industry research.

Q: When did you start becoming interested in the area of breast cancer research?
A: I think when I was in the beginning of my career, there were a couple of things going on that influenced my thinking a lot. One was breast cancer advocacy took root very early in my career. And I was influenced both by HIV/AIDS advocacy and by breast cancer advocacy, and very influenced by the concept that people who have the disease have their own PhD in the disease by virtue of having lived through the disease.

Q: What inspired you to get into breast cancer research work?
A: I was very interested in cancer from both a biological aspect and a human aspect. And as I was establishing my career, it was the same time as the realization came about that men's research received vastly more funding than women's research…and also the emergence of, first the HIV/AIDS survivor community and activism and then breast cancer patient activism. The breast cancer survivor community and activism really spoke to my activist side. I was drawn to it for scientific reasons and political reasons, as well as that aspect of doing research for the people and by the people.

Q: What were you at the time hoping to do with all of that?
A: I actually started out as a basic science researcher and tried that on for a little bit and decided that wasn't quite for me. Then I was fortunate enough to end up in a cancer prevention fellowship where I started doing public health research. And that's where I was like, "Okay, now I found my home.” And the advantage of having jumped around a bit and explored different areas is that, when this position came up as Director of the Breast Cancer Research Program, where we cover everything from basic science to clinical research to public health, all of those experiences have benefited me in this position.

Q: Did you immediately know that you found your home?
A: I heard about this job in a very old fashioned way. It was a flyer pinned to a bulletin board. That's not the way we advertise jobs anymore. And I read the description of what they were looking for and said, "Oh, that is me. That is entirely me. They just don't know it yet." What they were looking for was a scientist with expertise in all aspects of breast cancer science who also could have good relationships with activists and advocates. And it was like, "I was born for this."

Q: What would you say are some of the key highlights and milestones so far? I mean, it's been a long time, right?
A: I did my fellowship at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, because I was very interested in bone marrow transplantation and very interested in stem cells and their potential in cancer and to treat cancer. And I actually ran two clinical trials, treating breast cancer with bone marrow transplant in my clinical fellowship. Subsequently one of the big findings early after I started my position was that bone marrow transplantation was not very effective for breast cancer. And it was interesting socio-politically because women were demanding the right to have bone marrow transplants and insurance companies were kind of scared of denying them. There were a lot of bone marrow transplants done in those years, and I'm sure some people benefited from them, but as a group, we discovered it was not the way to go about treating breast cancer and its part of the reasons that I left clinical medicine; I felt like, "I don't think I'm doing the right thing here." And I'm helping one person at a time and I want to help more people than that, which led me into the public health arena. Obviously Herceptin made a huge difference in treatment of HER2-positive breast cancer. That whole story has a couple of lessons, one being that an antibody can be used to treat cancer, so that was one of the early antibody treatments of any sort of cancer.

Q: Upon reflecting on your 26 years here, do you feel like you've reached your goals and mission?
A: Changing the world takes a lot of people and it's no one individual who makes the changes happen. I think we've made a lot of progress. Obviously there's a lot more breast cancer awareness than there used to be. And breast cancer treatment is being more successful. We still have a long way to go, but the death rate from breast cancer has been reduced considerably. And then there were other changes that we'll have to wait and see, but I think I've pushed things in a positive direction. One is involving communities and survivors in actually doing the research and helping decide the direction of the research. Having breast cancer survivors sit on peer review panels and be fully voting members of peer review panels was practically unheard of 26 years ago. And now if you try to hold a breast cancer peer review meeting, and there are no advocates there, the scientists will be looking around the room saying, "Where are the advocates?"

Q: How did you bring more women's voices into research and decisions about research, for example and how are you still doing that?
A: Some was by following our enabling legislation. The credit goes actually to the people involved in writing the legislation, they had written into the law that our council had to be one-third breast cancer advocates. That was their vision, that advocates would be at the table making decisions about the direction of the program. And I think that's as far as they could see at that time, and what we've done over the past 26 years is just take that sentiment and move it into all aspects of our program.

Q: When you're not working and when you're not at the CBCRP, where can you be found?
A:  I enjoy music, although I'm not doing any of that right now because most musical groups have been called off for the last two years. In my adult life, I've taken up the cello. I have played in a couple of local community orchestras that have been a lot of fun and I'm also a pianist. I enjoy cooking and especially baking. So I did a lot of baking during the pandemic. I also enjoy playing bridge; I was excited to find during the pandemic that there are ways to play online. And so pretty much every weekend you can find me in a bridge game with friends.


Interview by Amy Wu

Mhel playing the cello