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Dr. Dorraya El-Ashry: Five lifestyle changes women can make to reduce their risk of breast cancer

The fact is, even the healthiest of people get breast cancer. This disease, like many others, is not something any individual can control. The most powerful movement is to fund research — which is the only path towards eradicating breast cancer and eliminating its ability to take lives. As a part of my series about the women in […]

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The fact is, even the healthiest of people get breast cancer. This disease, like many others, is not something any individual can control. The most powerful movement is to fund research — which is the only path towards eradicating breast cancer and eliminating its ability to take lives.


As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Dorraya El-Ashry.

Dr. Dorraya El-Ashry, is the Chief Scientific Officer at the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Dr. El-Ashry has spent her entire career pursuing an end to breast cancer through research. First as a scientist for nearly three decades and, most recently, as the head of research and grants administration at BCRF, the world’s largest private funder of breast cancer research.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Pursuing “wellness” may come in many forms, but for me, it’s through science. Science has always been a big part of my life. My dad is a scientist, and science and math were always emphasized in our house of two girls. When I was in the 4th grade, the President declared the “War on Cancer,” and I thought, “Well, then that’s what I’ll do. I’ll find a cure for cancer.” In college at Vanderbilt University, my two best friends’ mothers died from breast cancer. It was then that I decided I would pursue a career in breast cancer research. I chose to get my PhD in pathology since it’s the study of disease — the how, why, and what of diseases, including cancer — so it gave me a great foundation to pursue a career in cancer research.

Just over 25 years ago my 37-year-old aunt, my Dad’s youngest sister, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She had two young daughters, and while she was treated and had some response, she died two years later. In the intervening years, several friends, colleagues and other relatives have been treated for breast cancer. Some are surviving and others we’ve lost. Recently, we lost a young, 35-year old woman for whom I was awarded a grant in honor of — the grant was to study treatments for metastatic breast cancer, the disease which ultimately took her life. For me, it’s very personal.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

The focus of my lab, as a newly independent investigator and junior faculty, challenged a commonly accepted theory on how estrogen receptors and growth factors interact. However, by taking a look at actual tumors from patients, we were able to see that this theory was far more complex than previously imagined. As a junior investigator, it was really difficult to get published or secure funding, especially when challenging the prevailing paradigm. But with the help of many people along the way, we persevered. It ultimately changed the way we approached targeting these receptors. The big lesson here was perseverance — follow where the data leads you, back it up with more strong data, and keep pushing ahead to get your data out there.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

As a scientist, you quickly learn that making mistakes and overcoming technical challenges are par for the course. In fact, that’s how science happens: iterative, but persistent experiments. There are some experiments that may go completely smoothly with few to no issues. And there are some that are truly aha moments. But, just as often, there are others that are mired with challenges. My favorite quote is, “There are no failed experiements, only unimaginative interpretation of unexpected results.” In other words, results that may be perceived as “mistakes” are actually informing you of something previously unknown, as long as you keep an open mind.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My post-doc mentor, Dr. Marc Lippman, truly helped to shape the course of my career. When I was an early-career scientist facing obstacles in getting published or securing funding, he gave me the patience and support necessary to keep my lab open. He also encouraged me to continously challenge my ideas — essentially, to hone in on the most vital questions. One thing I learned from him that I passed on to the students I mentored: “There are lots of experiments you can do to answer your specific question, but what are the experiments you should do?”

Whenever you set up an experiment, you have an expected result — but the key is to frame your question in a way that the result is informative regardless of the outcome. From my graduate advisor, I learned a good experiment should be designed in a way that an unexpected result can still move the project forward, even if it’s taking a different path than you originally expected or intended.

Dr. Lippman also thought of me when this position at BCRF became available and convinced me to take a look at it. I was a lifelong researcher and was nowhere near ready to switch gears in my career, but he really believed that I could add value to the organization. And now, I’m regularly working with scientists across the globe to help advance the entire field — impacting women’s health at a scale I never truly imagined.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

The work I did as a breast cancer researcher has several potential impacts, from improving liquid biopsies to finding new targets for therapeutic treatment and prevention of metastasis, that are currently being pursued both by the lab and in collaborations with other investigators. The work I’m doing at BCRF has allowed me to have an impact on an even wider, global scale by impacting the entire field of breast cancer research as a whole. Thanks to research, deaths from breast cancer have declined by 40 percent over the last three decades. And my role at BCRF allows me to impact that continued trajectory until there are zero deaths from breast cancer.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

Based on evidence-based research, we know that there are lifestyle changes women can make to reduce their risk of breast cancer, some include:

  • Reduce your alcohol consumption.
  • Do something that gets you moving every day, and maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Learn more about your family’s health history.
  • And finally, try to get enough sleep and reduce chronic stress in your life.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

The fact is, even the healthiest of people get breast cancer. This disease, like many others, is not something any individual can control. The most powerful movement is to fund research — which is the only path towards eradicating breast cancer and eliminating its ability to take lives.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  • Patience is key. If you pursue research, you have to be in it for the long-game. Research is time-consuming, laborious work — but it can also be THE most rewarding.
  • Perseverance is necessary. You have to be ready to fight for your ideas and your data, especially women in science.
  • Pause to think about what you’re actually asking. Design your experiments to be informative regardless of the result.
  • Pivot when you need to. If an experiment is yielding unepected results, learn how to pursue the path revealed instead of automatically rejecting it.
  • Finally, don’t get stuck on words that begin with P! Your career can evolve in ways you never imagined. I had a long career as a researcher and now I’m overseeing the grant program at the largest private funder of breast cancer research in the world..

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

The issue of environmental change is intricately linked to health and disease, and this includes cancer. For breast cancer, there is clearly a role for the environment and this is in fact, an area of breast cancer research.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Follow @BCRFcure — it’s the best way to find the latest on breast cancer research.

Thank you for these fantastic insights!

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