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Symbiotic relationship between San Diego breast cancer survivor and Salk researchers

A two-time breast cancer survivor embedded in a Salk Institute laboratory to give researchers first-hand knowledge on treatments.

SAN DIEGO — As we walk to honor survivors and those who lost their battle to breast cancer during the Komen San Diego More Than Pink Walk and the Susan G. Komen 3-Day, there's a unique story about a symbiotic relationship between a survivor and a group of scientists researching breast cancer treatments.

Salk Institute professor, Geoffrey Wahl, PhD, is receiving this year's Susan G Komen Brinker Award that recognizes his work in cancer genetics.

“’You are that wise ancestor that Jonas Salk envisioned when creating his iconic institute, you embody that concept,’” said Wahl of letter written by a breast cancer survivor.

As Wahl read continues to read the letter he grows emotional. It was written after he announced he would be retiring this year.

“To know that you can make that impact on someone,” said Wahl.

Wahl's wisdom reflects the late Jonas Salk who Wahl says encouraged him to always think about the person behind the cancer research. That person entered their world of research 11 years ago.

Bianca Kennedy is a two-time breast cancer survivor. She was first diagnosed at age 35 and again at age 47. Her sister has beat breast cancer four times.

She met Wahl at a breast cancer conference in Orlando in 2011. He invited her into the lab to help researchers better understand their mission.

“I have actually been able to put a human face on the theoretical,” said Kennedy.

Wahl says his mission hasn’t been to set a cure for cancer, he says there are many forms of cancer, but rather research in better treatments and her presence was a motivating force.

“It made us appreciate that what we had to do was be able to diagnose more accurately find the disease earlier, understand why recurrences happen, and make sure that they don't,” said Wahl.

Kennedy’s second recurrence happened while she was embedded in the Gene Expression Laboratory.

His team saw her go through the biopsy, surgeries, and shared how some of radiation treatments burned her skin pushing researchers to new humane discoveries.

“The scientists were able to really see in real time what was going on. And when I had difficulties, I was able to share that with them,” said Kennedy

Wahl says the high cost of living and low wages among PhD candidates and postgraduates is threatening research. He hopes this can give them inspiration and advocate change and the critical need for researchers.

By straddling these two worlds, Wahl says he's able to instill the values of a scientist.

“The excitement of science, how to do science ethically, and with compassion and empathy, and to think about the patients for whom they were doing the research,” said Wahl.

Of all the distinguished awards Wahl and his team have received, one of the honors goes to the relationship between the lab and Bianca.

“The biggest recognition it is that we're doing something positive, we've done something positive for Bianca, Bianca did something positive for the trainees,” said Wahl.

That symbiotic inspiration turns back to the letter from the breast cancer survivor, penned by Kennedy.

That is what we should all strive for, be wise ancestors

“Geoff kindly says that it gives the inspiration to the lab. And by that same token, the lab gives me inspiration,” said Kennedy.

The 2022 Komen San Diego More Than Pink Walk is this Sunday, Nov. 6. It kicks off at 7:30 a.m. at Balboa Park. Join CBS 8 and thousands of walkers and runners as they hit the pavement to support those living with breast cancer, celebrate survivors and honor those we’ve lost. 

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