Scientist in the Spotlight:
Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N.
Today, investigations into nutrition, exercise and cancer occupy all of Dr. Demark-Wahnefried's research time. But cancer research was not the starting point of her career. In fact, at one point in time she wanted to distance herself as much as she could from this disease.
"I had a cancer diagnosis when I was 26 with extensive leg surgery as a result," she says. "I really wanted to close my life's chapter on cancer. My initial research focus was on cardiovascular disease - the treatment of hyperlipidemia (excess fat in the blood) with oat bran."
But after a move to North Carolina in the early 1990s, one of three job offers she received was at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center. "I had to think hard. Cancer scared me. Although my recovery turned out well, my experience had been terrifying, and I asked myself, "Do I want a career in that field?"
She did take the job at Duke, however, and began research on the effect of flaxseed, another high-fiber food, on prostate cancer. "Fortunately, that's one cancer I can't develop," she jokes. She now is a professor in both the Departments of Surgery and the School of Nursing.
One of Dr. Demark-Wahnefried's current projects, partially funded by AICR, is a 10-month exercise and diet intervention study involving breast and prostate cancer survivors. She will analyze the participants' blood lipid and hormonal levels to see how these markers change from the beginning to the end of the program.
She has also been active with AICR in education. In 2005, she spoke about the role of lifestyle, particularly diet and exercise, on cancer recurrence at AICR's Miami Conference on Nutrition after Cancer. She has also chaired a session at AICR's annual research conference.
Dr. Demark-Wahnefried speaks highly of AICR. "It is truly one of the most active organizations on diet, nutrition, and cancer," she comments. "It not only funds seminal cancer research, but also has a service arm to get this information out to patients. Another plus is AICR's annual conference, where scientists can meet and network and learn new things."
Dr. Demark-Wahnefried did not plan on a career in research when she completed her undergraduate work in nutritional science and chemistry at the University of Michigan. "I was the first woman in my family to go to college, and it was important to have a tangible career when I got out, so I studied to be a dietitian."
But after three years in that field, during which time she completed a master's degree at Texas Woman's University, she went into research. She earned a Ph.D. in nutritional science at Syracuse University in 1988. Her research in cardiovascular disease began there.
Her transition from studying high-fiber foods and cardiovascular disease to fiber-rich foods and cancer was easy. "Fiber plays a role in cholesterol regulation," she says. "Cholesterol, in turn, influences hormone-related cancers, because the body converts cholesterol into androgens and estrogens. These are sex hormones that play a role primarily in breast and prostate cancers but other cancers as well."
Her more recent lifestyle intervention trials for cancer survivors were a natural outgrowth of her cancer research. "Weight gain is a prevalent problem in breast cancer therapy, and we found that we could stop the cycle of obesity and adverse body composition changes through exercise." She is trying to find what kinds of education and information work best to motivate cancer survivors to exercise and eat healthful diets.
Although she works 50-80 hours a week, Dr. Demark-Wahnefried and her husband, who runs a computer hosting company, take ballroom dancing lessons for personal enjoyment and exercise. She tries to eat a healthy diet. "Fortunately, I love fruits and vegetables," she affirms. She also makes sure she gets on an elliptical trainer every other day. "I can't ask my cancer survivors to exercise if I don't do it. You've got to walk the walk."