Breast Cancer Research and You: Helping Find the Breakthrough to Heal Yourself and Others

Dr. Michelina Cairo

Dr. Michelina Cairo

Dr. Frankie Ann Holmes

Dr. Frankie Ann Holmes


More than 15,000 Texas women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, including nearly 2,500 in Harris County. For some patients, participation in a clinical trial is the best option – for their own treatment and the potential to develop effective treatment for other patients. Indeed, behind the breakthroughs that have helped dramatically increase breast cancer survival rates in recent years are women who made the courageous choice to join a clinical trial.

In Houston, opportunities and options for participation in cancer research are numerous. Over the years, Texas Oncology and its patients have played a role in research that has led to more than 50 FDA-approved cancer-fighting drugs.

“Clinical trials are how we develop new treatments,” said Dr. Michelina Cairo, medical oncologist, Texas Oncology–Houston Memorial City. “We can’t promise that every clinical trial will benefit every patient, but it is a way to move science forward in the world. Every clinical trial we do adds incrementally to our knowledge.”

A clinical trial is research into how patients respond to different medical approaches for various types of cancers. Studies address scientific challenges and identify better ways to treat, diagnose and prevent cancer. Patients who participate in clinical trials are volunteers who provide a tremendous service to further cancer research.

Clinical trials involving new drug therapies and combinations are conducted in four phases and in some cases lead to breakthrough drugs or therapies. For example, the “cooling cap” is a recent discovery that had clinical trials conducted here in Houston. It’s a device aimed at preventing chemo-related hair loss. Chemotherapy works by flowing through the bloodstream to target cells that grow and replace themselves rapidly. This category of cells includes not only cancer cells but also hair and nail cells. This is why chemotherapy sometimes causes hair and fingernail loss.

Cooling down your head reduces blood flow and therefore the amount of chemo to the scalp. When successful, women keep most of their hair, avoiding one of the more dramatic disruptions that can accompany a cancer diagnosis. Patients often say that being treated like they were “sick” was one of the worst parts of having cancer – and baldness being a visible indicator of that. Keeping your hair provides greater privacy and control over who knows you’re sick.

“There was a time when doctors viewed and treated all breast cancer much the same way — with a one-size-fits-all option,” said Dr. Frankie Ann Holmes, medical oncologist, Texas Oncology–Houston Memorial City. “Today, we clearly know that all breast tumors are not the same and should not be treated the same. That knowledge came through years of research and clinical trials.”

Oncologists definitely have learned that cancer often requires different approaches and combinations of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation — as well as new treatments and new breakthroughs like immunotherapy.

Patients also find that participating in clinical trials helps make their cancer experience more positive because they are potentially helping others. Participating gives patients the opportunity to pay it forward, knowing that their treatment could help create more cancer survivors.    

Dr. Frankie Ann Holmes and Dr. Michelina Cairo are medical oncologists specializing in breast cancer at Texas Oncology–Houston Memorial City, 925 Gessner Street, Suite 550 in Houston. For more information, call 713-467-1722.