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When Katie Reeder-Hayes, MD, MSc, MBA, was about 8 years old, her younger sister fell off her bicycle and was severely injured when the two were outside riding alone near their home in the Alabama mountains.

UNC Lineberger's Katie Reeder-Hayes
UNC Lineberger’s Katie Reeder-Hayes, MD, MSc, MBA, focuses her research on the effectiveness of breast cancer treatments and survival disparities. She is also a contributor to the Carolina Breast Cancer Study.

Her sister was bleeding heavily, and her braces were askew. She ended up needing emergency dental surgery just to put everything back together. But Reeder-Hayes wasn’t afraid or unsure of what to do.

She used a towel to stanch the bleeding, got her sister out of the road and ran home for help.

It was the moment she knew she had a future in medicine.

“I think I had a desire to be helpful, and a realization I could keep it together in a situation where people were sick or worried or anxious — maybe that was something that steered me in the direction (of being a doctor),” she said. “I think my mom was a little freaked out that I wasn’t crying or screaming, though.”

Now, Reeder-Hayes cares for patients with breast cancer as a medical oncologist at the UNC School of Medicine. Helping patients understand their disease and medical options so they can make the best decision for their lives is important to her.

And as a researcher at UNC Lineberger, she works to understand and address racial, socioeconomic and other barriers that influence patient survival and other outcomes.

“When I made the connection between the way that patients experience the health system and what actually happens with their cancer, that made it seem really important to me to deal with fixing those front-end things, in order to fix what all of us care about as cancer doctors, which is how likely you are to beat cancer,” she said.

A passion for helping others

Reeder-Hayes knew early on that she wanted to work with cancer patients in medical school at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

During a surgical oncology rotation, she was drawn in by the meaningful conversations the surgical oncologists had with their patients – even if she didn’t want to be a surgeon.

Working with a patient who had a rare disease called systemic amyloidosis, she experienced that firsthand.

The patient’s disease was advanced, and some of his family members were sleeping on the floor of his hospital room, cherishing every moment possible with him.

“I spent a lot of time with the patient and his family just helping them understand what it was he had, what were the treatment options, why were some of the more aggressive treatment options not going to be helpful to him, and what were the things he wanted for the last part of his life,” she said. “And while that was hard, it was also really rewarding.”

She came to the UNC School of Medicine to complete her residency and fellowship training as a hematology oncologist. Now as a physician-scientist who cares for patients with breast cancer and does research, she’s made important findings through her research about how race and other factors relate to patient outcomes.

Breast cancer research

Racial disparities in cancer care

She led a study published this year in the journal Cancer that found that black women with breast cancer were more likely to start treatment more than 60 days after their diagnosis than white women. This research was part of a multi-pronged effort to understand why breast cancer mortality is high among black women.

In other studies, she and her collaborators found that both breast cancer patients insured by Medicaid and black patients were less likely to receive life-saving endocrine therapy to prevent breast cancer recurrence.

To address issues she’s uncovered related to adherence to endocrine therapies, she helped lead a study in which women received individualized coaching to improve their long term adherence to endocrine therapy medications for breast cancer.

Her team is now launching a national randomized study, called “GETSET,” in collaboration with the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology, to test their coaching strategy and other aids for medication adherence on a larger scale.

Patient-reported outcomes

In yet another research endeavor, she’s planning to use big data and patient-reported outcomes to address unanswered questions patients have about side effects of these same medications.

“Clinical trials tend to focus on events that are dangerous to people, like blood clots or a recurrence of the cancer,” she said. “Those are really important for long-term health, but they don’t answer questions that may be very important to a patient like: ‘How many hot flashes will I have because of this medicine,’ or ‘I’ve gained 10 pounds since I started this medicine, is it because of the medicine?’ ”

Reeder-Hayes said that in the absence of good scientific answers, patients tend to assume their symptoms and their medications are linked. She hopes to find evidence-based answers that will help patients make educated decisions about treatment.

She’s also planning for a study to look at how geographic variation in where patients live might impact care outcomes.

“How do we become a stronger, better network of cancer care providers across the state?” she said.

Processing experiences through writing

In addition to her research, she has written about her experiences as a doctor in another form: the personal essay.

In one essay that she published in The Journal of Clinical Oncology, she wrote about helping a young patient with advanced esophageal cancer live out the rest of his life the way he wanted to – not in a hospital room.

Essay writing speaks to a long-held interest. As a college student at Vanderbilt University, she majored in both biology and English, and reading and writing have always been important in her life.

“Every physician in this field has ways that they process what happens to them – the experiences they have with patients, how their professional life relates to their personal life,” she said of essay writing. “Writing happens to be one of the ways of processing that.”

At home, she and her husband are the parents of five children – all boys.

“It’s messy and it involves a lot of food,” she said with a laugh.

She’s tried to pass on the value of helping others to her children.

“They have always heard throughout their lives that if someone needs help, and we know how to give that help, that the help becomes our first priority, and that’s what we’re here for,” she said. “If they absorb one value from the fact that their mother is a doctor, I hope that is it.”