On a recent Friday evening, as Lauren Skerritt ’14 and her internship supervisor, oncologist Dr. Catheryn Yashar, were packing up to go home after a long week, they started talking about the starker realities of treating cancer patients.
“I asked her how she handles all these patients,” Skerritt recalled. “There are success stories but there is sadness. There are patients who don’t survive.” Dr. Yashar confessed that even after 22 years of working in the field of breast and cervical cancers, she still cries with patients. “But she said she loves what she does even though there is heartache. She thinks it is the hope that they can do well that pushes her along.”
This summer, Skerritt has a grant from the Bowdoin College Alumni Council Internship Fund to intern at U.C. San Diego’s Moores Comprehensive Cancer Center. The center is known for a wide range of cancer care, and Skerritt is working in its radiation oncology department. Her grant, one of Bowdoin’s many donor-funded grants, was created by the Alumni Council to allow a student to take an unpaid internship in a career field of his or her choice.
Skerritt, who is from San Diego, Calif., is a mathematics and biology major at Bowdoin. After graduating, she plans to go to medical school to study oncology.
Over the summer, Skerritt is assisting Dr. Yashar in her research on a new radiation treatment for cervical cancer. With the old treatment method, patients receive radiation with a full bladder. The idea is that an expanded bladder helps push organs out of the way of the radiation beams and so reduces unnecessary toxicity and damage, Skerritt explained.
But Dr. Yashar believes it is better to treat cervical patients with an empty bladder. Full bladders can rearrange the region in unanticipated ways, Skerritt said, and with newer radiation treatments that are more narrowly directed, it is better to reduce any uncertainties. In the past two years, they’ve found that patients treated on an empty bladder have “fewer fissures or holes in organs,” Skerritt said.
To scrutinize data for this thesis, Skerritt is analyzing 850 CT (computerized tomography) scans of Dr. Yashar’s patients taken over the past three years. By the end of the summer, she will co-author a paper to be submitted for publication in a professional journal.
Besides collecting data by taking CT scans, Skerritt is learning other aspects of healing — in a sense the more intangible parts of being a doctor. She shadows Dr. Yashar to watch and learn from her interactions with patients. She’s been impressed with Dr. Yashar’s approach, which is to provide all the data available about the patient’s disease and possible courses of treatment. “She gives patients options,” Skerritt said. “She spends a good hour in the first visit, talking and getting to know them and their patient history. I like that socialization, getting to know them, and finding the best way to treat them.”