A cancer diagnosis is life-altering at any age, but being diagnosed as a teenager can upend one’s entire future. Julie Deleemans knows that first-hand. Today, Deleemans is a cancer researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Calgary, but her journey to get there started with her own diagnosis.
In 2006, Deleemans was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the larynx — she was 18 years old. Her treatment consisted of chemotherapy, radiation and the removal of her larynx (known colloquially as the voice box), thyroid and surrounding lymph nodes. The treatments were successful but left Deleemans unable to speak, forcing her to re-evaluate her future.
“My dream had been to take over [my family’s] farm and be a professional show jumper, riding instructor and horse trainer, but cancer changed all of that,” writes Deleemans in an email. “I didn’t know who I was, where I fit in or what I was supposed to do with my life.”
Deleemans initially used a tracheoesophageal voice prothesis to communicate but it stopped working due to tissue damage from radiation treatment. Today, she largely communicates by email, text or with a soft whisper when in one-on-one conversations or with small groups.
Advisors told Deleemans that post-secondary education would be difficult due to her disability. She felt lost, and didn’t know what to do next. She also suffered from anxiety, PTSD, depression and gastrointestinal issues as a result of her treatments. Eventually, Deleemans made what she calls one of the best decisions of her life.
“I thought, ‘I’ll go to school and figure out how to fix myself,’” says Deleemans. “My only regret was that I listened to [those advisors] and doubted myself for so long.”
With her goal in mind, and four years after finishing treatment, she enrolled at Brescia University College, an affiliate of Western University, in London, Ont., to study psychology. There, Deleemans first fell in love with research. She finished her bachelor’s degree a year early and immediately started a master’s degree in behavioural and cognitive neuroscience at Western University.
Despite academic success, Deleemans was still living with her mental health and gastrointestinal problems. Meanwhile, she was learning about the ecosystem of microorganisms that exist in our digestive tract, collectively known as the gut microbiome. Deleemans learned that the wrong foods or environmental factors can disrupt the gut-microbiota-brain axis — a link thought to exist between gut health and proper function of the brain. Like any good scientist, she decided to run an experiment.
“I cut out processed sugars and as much processed food as I could. I began practicing yoga, exercising and practicing mindfulness. I switched to a vegetarian diet for two years and limited my dairy intake. I also started taking a daily probiotic and turmeric supplements. My goal was to reduce the systemic inflammation in my body, which I suspected to be the cause of the prolonged depressive symptoms,” says Deleemans. “After making these changes, my gastrointestinal health improved a lot, and within six months I was able to go off of my anti-depressant medication.”
With her master’s degree completed and personal insight into how important gut health can be in overcoming the lingering effects of cancer treatment, Deleemans was ready for the next chapter. In 2017, she began her PhD in medical sciences, specializing in psychosocial oncology at the University of Calgary. Roughly a year in, she had a eureka moment as she connected ongoing studies to her own experiences. She no longer had any doubts — she knew what she wanted to study.
Deleemans’ PhD research project, the Chemo-Gut project began recruiting in September 2019. It is funded by the Enbridge Research Chair in Psychosocial Oncology and the Alberta Cancer Foundation. It uses three approaches to assess the potential links between chemotherapy, the gut microbiome and mental health: a literature review will look at studies that have investigated the role of pre/ probiotic interventions in treating psychological, cognitive and/or gastrointestinal issues; an online survey of Canadians who have completed cancer treatments will determine what gastrointestinal and mental health issues survivors typically deal with and for how long; and finally, body mass index (BMI), waist-to-hip ratio measurements and collection of hair and fecal samples will be analyzed to establish the long-term effects treatment has on patients’ gut microbiome. Participants will also complete self-reported measures for an array of mental health and GI health outcomes.
Supported by mentorship from Dr. Linda Carlson and Dr. Raylene Reimer, Deleemans is hopeful the Chemo-Gut project will have a profound impact on fellow cancer survivors.
“I hope that through my research, we will know when and how to intervene earlier to heal the gut microbiota and hopefully prevent or reverse some of the adverse long-term effects of treatment,” says Deleemans.