On a Friday afternoon in July 2002, Eliza Whiteside sat on the edge of her bed hugging her two-year old son in a state of shock. She had just received the devastating news that she had invasive breast cancer. Her discovery of a foreign lump in her chest a few months before was to become the start of an emotionally challenging journey battling breast cancer.
'I didn’t think it was real when I heard the diagnosis. I didn’t have a family history of breast cancer and I had just turned 28. I thought I had done everything right – I ate well and exercised. All that was going through my mind was the unfairness of it all.'
Survivorship and wellness
The year before, Eliza and her family had relocated from Brisbane to Sydney. She was working as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Sydney, funded by a NHMRC project grant that was awarded to her and her supervisor based on her PhD findings. Her PhD research investigated the molecular biology of cell invasion, a process that occurs when cancer cells spread through surrounding tissue as well as by the embryo cells during implantation at the initiation of pregnancy.
Three days after diagnosis, Eliza was admitted into hospital to have a mastectomy and to remove of all of the lymph nodes under her arm and in her chest as well as most of her chest muscle.
'After several more surgeries and scans, I was due to start chemotherapy. The ‘Catch-22’ was that the chemo drugs would increase my likelihood of surviving the cancer but also render me infertile. Hearing this bad news, coupled with the prospect of experiencing premature menopause, I felt like I’d hit rock bottom. That was until my husband said to me, ‘You’re a medical researcher, find another way.'
Eliza put on her researcher hat and found a breast cancer clinical trial using a different chemotherapy regime including a new drug called Trastuzumab, which had a lower risk of causing infertility and premature menopause in younger women.
'I was lucky to be accepted into that clinical trial. There was still a chance I would be infertile, but my odds were better. The clinical trial drugs were less likely to be cytotoxic to my ovaries. For 6 months I had three-weekly infusions of two of the usual chemotherapy drugs along with weekly infusions of Trastuzumab for 12 months, which didn’t have as many side effects. However, the usual chemo drugs made my hair fall out, my nails didn’t grow, I had no eyebrows or eyelashes and I felt really sick a lot of the time. After the chemo finished, I returned to work at the lab part-time but I missed my friends and family in Queensland. I returned to QUT to help set up a new lab working on adult stem cell research. I was basically all good for a year but because my cancer was so aggressive, my surgeon encouraged me to consider a prophylactic mastectomy.'
The discovery of a lump on the other side of her chest cemented Eliza’s decision to do the surgery.
'Thankfully it was benign, but I didn’t want to go through the worry again. A couple of months after the second mastectomy, I began the rebuild, and started to ‘reconstruct’ my body and myself. I still had to attend monthly check-ups and had a few more surgeries - but I was cancer free!'
Moving on and enabling others
In 2004, after experiencing further ill health, Eliza decided to take a break from paid work. She had been volunteering with cancer support services so wanted to contribute further and spend more time with her son. She also wanted to focus back on her ‘baby dream’ and in 2005, her ‘miracle’ baby girl was born.
For the next few years, Eliza lived in the UK, gaining further work experience in lecturing and curriculum development. Then she settled back in Brisbane, undertaking part-time lecturing and research and helping to set up labs in a new research institute. In 2011, she was appointed as a full-time lecturer in Biomedical Sciences at QUT and in 2013 was awarded a Young Tall Poppy award for her achievements in research and community outreach.
'My career is definitely not typical in the field of medical research – it’s quite disjointed with breaks due to parenting, ill health, part-time and volunteer work and teaching-only positions – but all of these experiences have only fuelled my passion and provided invaluable knowledge for helping people through high impact research. When I returned to the lab to initiate my own research project, I had a different view. Rather than just focusing on ’molecules’ and ‘cells’, I was inspired to research some of the issues that cancer patients had shared with me. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with nurses and clinicians at the Wesley Hospital, and was involved in a research study investigating whether diet and exercise could relieve the side effects of premature menopause in breast cancer patients. I was also interested in how these strategies affected the body’s physiology.'
In 2014, seeking to improve health outcomes for people in regional and remote Australia through research, Eliza applied for a role at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba, where she now holds the position of Associate Professor in Biomedical Science and Discipline Leader for Health Sciences in the School of Health and Wellbeing.
'I am now involved in several collaborative research projects including a project to develop better wound care in Aboriginal Communities. In 2017 we began a really exciting clinical trial on the effectiveness of group-based Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in improving psychosocial and physiological wellness in women following breast cancer treatment. The focus was on shifting the mindset, ‘Yes, your cancer could come back but do you want to live your life constantly worrying, or rather, find ways to enjoy the moment?’ We also looked at how one’s psychosocial health could impact one’s cellular recovery from treatment by analysing genomic biomarkers.'
Eliza is clearly driven by passion, positivity and her own personal experiences with breast cancer. She says, however, that this clinical trial could not have been possible without the support of USQ, her colleagues and students.
'We have a wonderful graduate named Catherine who is now a staff member with us at USQ. As a single mother of three kids, she did an amazing job helping me with this clinical trial as part of her Honours degree. That’s one of the things I love about working at USQ; we give students opportunities that would be a little bit more elusive at other universities. Like me, my wonderful colleagues feel passionate about providing educational opportunities to support our students’ growth. At the end of the day, my past students become my collaborators and friends, and I will continue to support their career journey in any way I can.'