Kerryn Reding, PhD, MPH, RN, Daughter of Health-Care Workers, Chooses a Career in Breast Cancer Survivorship

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Kerryn Reding, PhD, MPH, RN—whose research focuses on reducing cancer incidence and improving survival, with particular interests in lifestyle interventions and biomarkers of risk—was born in Australia, but her family moved to Iowa when she was a toddler. “Both of my parents were in health care. My father was a family practitioner, and my mom was a nurse, so given that environment, I always thought I’d come to have some type of health-care role,” said Dr. Reding.

She continued: “One of my formative experiences was in middle school, when one of my friend’s mothers was diagnosed with breast cancer. We watched as she slowly succumbed to the disease. I remember attending the funeral and thinking there couldn’t be anything worse for a teenage girl than to lose her mother. That event stayed with me.”

Kerryn Reding, PhD, MPH, RN

Kerryn Reding, PhD, MPH, RN

In 1994, Dr. Reding entered Arizona State University as a zoology major, when Mary-Claire King, PhD, discovered the link between the inherited BRCA1 gene and breast cancer. “I became fascinated by the idea of being able to predict who might be likely to develop breast cancer based on a genetic test. So, I actually did my undergraduate thesis based on genetic testing in BRCA1 and BRCA2, and that’s when I really began thinking about a career in the area of breast cancer prevention. While at Arizona State, I worked in the lab of Dr. Kenneth Mossman, and we developed a program to identify the appropriate candidates for genetic testing in breast cancer,” said Dr. Reding. She added: “Work in this area was later published by authors at Stanford, which pretty much mirrored what I’d done, so it gave me confidence that I could make a career in epidemiology.”

Career Helped by Valued Mentor

After receiving her undergraduate degree, Dr. Reding pursued a master’s in public health at the University of Michigan, where she focused on the interdisciplinary program in genetics. “By then I was really interested in blending public health with genetics, and at that time, Michigan was one of only three schools offering that opportunity. I also realized how much I loved epidemiology, which was helped along by my incredible mentor, Dr. Steve Gruber, a noted cancer epidemiologist. Steve saw that I wanted to ask and answer important questions, and to that end, he encouraged me to get my PhD. After looking at a number of places, I ultimately decided to do my doctorate in epidemiology at the University of Washington (UW),” said Dr. Reding.

Dr. Reding described her UW experience as being enriched by a robust faculty, including mentorship by Drs. Kathi Malone and Noel Weiss, among others, and a wealth of research options. It was also a time when her desire to pursue breast cancer epidemiology, with an emphasis on genetic profiling and testing, took root. 

“My father had incorporated nutrition and lifestyle counseling into his medical practice, and we would have long and fascinating conversations about estrogen-metabolizing pathways, which are influenced by more factors than just genetics, such as adiposity and other biologic stressors. In fact, those probing discussions were actually precursors to my current work in breast cancer survivorship,” said Dr. Reding. 

Dr. Reding attained her PhD in Epidemiology in 2008 at the University of Washington, where she is currently Affiliate Associate Professor at the University’s School of Nursing. “I’ve found UW to be a terrific environment to conduct work that can have a positive impact on people’s lives. And I found a home in the School of Nursing, in a department focused on biobehavioral interventions and health technology, which is directly aligned with my research. As an educator, I can be a role model and affect the future of nursing by teaching our bright and eager students to think critically and also help them prepare for their future careers. And as a researcher, I can conduct studies that have a broad-based impact, for instance, in lifestyle interventions in at-risk communities and among breast cancer survivors,” said Dr. Reding.

Research, Teaching, and Service 

Asked about her current day-to-day work, Dr. Reding said: “At the school of nursing, I combine my work in research, teaching, and service. Currently, I’m teaching epidemiologic methods through the UW School of Public Health, which is a course that our PhD students in Nursing Science take. It’s a great opportunity for me to teach something that I’m passionate about and impart that passion to my students. During a typical week, I prepare lectures, grade papers, and interact with students to address any particular needs they may have. I really try to help them build solid foundations in research.”

Dr. Reding said she also spends time personally guiding students on individual research projects—something she finds extremely rewarding—which is a type of intensive mentorship. 

Cardio-oncology Focus

“The other major component of my workweek is dedicated to research, which is currently focused largely on cardio-oncology. Specifically, I’m working to develop manuscripts and grant proposals investigating and classifying cardiovascular morbidities after breast cancer. I split my research time on studying the literature and planning interventions to improve quality of life for women after a diagnosis of breast cancer,” said Dr. Reding. Sleep disorders are among a few major concerns of breast cancer survivors across the survivorship trajectory, so Dr. Reding is working on ways to encourage cancer survivors to focus on good sleep habits in much the same way they focus on diet and exercise. 

“Another intervention project I’m working on is a tailored exercise regimen for women after breast cancer, given that we know this patient population of survivors has lower cardiorespiratory fitness. It’s important because we know that after breast cancer, women may be going through a series of challenges, and a guided program will help to optimize their efforts. Our goal is to assist these women in improving their cardio health, and get back to the high-quality life they had prior to the cancer treatment–induced toxicity. It’s a very rewarding project, because we can see the human results of our work, which isn’t always the case,” said Dr. Reding.

Dr. Reding noted that left-ventricular dysfunction is one of the most serious adverse effects of chemotherapy in breast cancer survivors, and it can be exacerbated by increased body weight. “We see that left-ventricular decline in breast cancer survivors can be driven by risk factors they had before their diagnosis. For example, we see that adiposity increases the risk of left-ventricular dysfunction in this survivor population. We might consider a public health message to be for women to maintain a healthy body weight, so in the event they’re diagnosed with breast cancer, they’ll have better all-around outcomes. But that’s a broad-based message that comes with challenges in implementation. So, my focus is on interventions that can have a lasting impact on breast cancer survivors, such as sleep, diet, and exercise,” said Dr. Reding.

The ‘Tree Lady’

When asked about how a busy cancer epidemiologist decompresses, Dr. Reding said: “I love gardening and planting trees. In fact, I moved onto a block in Seattle that didn’t have a lot of trees, so I got together with my neighbors, and we’ve planted more than two dozen trees. During the pandemic, my husband and I discovered some apps that take you on tree tours, so I’ve been decompressing via these tree tours. During the pandemic, I actually took one of my undergraduate classes on a tree tour on UW campus to demonstrate the importance of self-care. We were all masked up of course, and it sort of came full circle about how my work in public health and trees intersected. I’m actually getting known around the neighborhood and on campus as the “tree lady.” 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Reding reported no conflicts of interest.