Women in Cancer: An Interview with Alexandra Drakaki, MD PhD

Dr. Alexandra Drakaki, MD, PHD, is a primary investigator of several clinical trials at UCLA.  She has achieved a number of successes in hematology and oncology, which have lead to significant breakthroughs and approval of novel drugs in the field. Fortunately, Dr. Drakaki made some time to answer a few questions for PHASE ONE. 

Q: What is the best cancer prevention tip you have ever shared and/or received?

Cancer is the disease of our time. People used to die from infections and cardiovascular disease in theirs forties and fifties, but now they live longer so they have higher risk of developing cancer. If we knew how to prevent it, nobody would have had cancer; however we know a few "tips." Lifestyle intervention strategies that may help to decrease risk of several cancers include avoiding smoking, alcohol, and obesity. Good sleep, meditation, and exercise play an important role as well in decreasing cancer recurrences as proven by many clinical trials in certain types of cancer, like breast cancer. However, my favorite tip that I ever received is: "Laughing is the best cancer prevention strategy."

Q: Do you have a favorite patient survivor story?

There are many wonderful stories. One of my special ones, was Ms. X. I met her in July 2014. She was in her late forties at the time, a beautiful lady full of life. As soon as I introduced myself to her as her new oncologist, I then gave her the bad news that her cancer had recurred and it was going to be terminal. Our relationship went through waves as you can imagine. She refused to accept the news. Her only son had just graduated from high school - she had to be there for him. We looked through the few available studies at the time for her rare cancer and eventually I enrolled her in a Phase I clinical trial. Time went by and we bonded like family. Her widespread cancer melted away within the first few cycles and now we are getting ready for her son's graduation from college. She is going to be proud, but most importantly, she is going to be there, four years later...cancer free!

Q: Is there a problem with conventional cancer screenings for certain types of cancer? 

In 2018, the simple answer is, "no." There is no problem with conventional screenings for certain types of cancer. Although, I would say the bigger issue is the lack of  screening modalities for cancer. One of the first screening tests, that positively proved itself with life saving results for early detection, was the Papanikolaou test for cervical cancer, followed by mammograms for  breast cancer, colonoscopies for colorectal cancer, PSA for prostate cancer (with a lot of debate about its use since it may identify "insignificant" cancers), and recently a CT of the chest for lung cancer screenings in high risk patients. Accordingly, and as you can see, the major problem in detecting cancer at an early stage is due to the lack of screening modalities for most cancer types. Although, there is hope that with the way research is progressing, we will be able to detect malignancies at an earlier stage through a simple urine, stool or blood test.