She sits with a stoic presence and holds you with a soldier-like stare when she speaks passionately about breast cancer–and the passing and survivorship of her patients. As an oncologist in the field for the last 30 years, Dr. Anna Maria Storniolo has been in the trenches, serving as a physician, researcher, advocate and innovator. “There are aspects to breast cancer, that no matter what you throw at them, the disease will always win. It’s a challenge that takes stamina.”
Certainly, research and science rise and fall with the passage of time but it’s how a provider pivots and moves through those moments that truly count. “You have to embrace change,” she says. “I’m a big believer in allowing life to happen.”
And it did: but becoming a breast cancer specialist wasn’t always in the cards for this doctor.
Growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she, like most physicians, fell in love with science. Dr. Storniolo headed to Harvard University after high school where she says medicine began to feel like the right fit, “I liked the puzzle pieces of internal medicine, putting together the full picture to help patients and solve problems.” Medical school at Stanford University followed before the physician completed her training in Rochester, New York. She focused on cancer.
“It became clear back then that the whole field of oncology was about to explode,” recalls Dr. Storniolo, “scientifically, we were about to learn a lot more about cancer, its development and how it grows. It’s something I wanted to be a part of.”
She started her career as a drug researcher. “I worked at Eli Lilly for 10 years and helped them develop a drug called Gemzar–which was the first oncology drug that they had launched in over 25 years.”
Eventually, though, the physician started to miss patient care. So, in the fall of 2000, Dr. Storniolo moved to IU Health–and has been happy ever since. “IU Health offers a unique blend of forward-thinking science and superb clinical care. The structure of ours clinics are created in a way so that patients never feel alone. There’s always a place for them get answers.”
Dr. Storniolo is always armed with answers, as well as a marker and white board.
“There is absolutely nothing in medicine that you can’t explain to a patient,” she says. “When I get my marker out that surprises some. They say they’ve never seen a doctor do that —when I start drawing and explaining to them how breast cancer and the drugs work. Cancer is so frightening and the drugs can sound so complicated. So, if I can demystify it for patients to help them feel more empowered, then I’ve done my job.”
In addition to patient care and breast cancer research, Dr. Storniolo is the founder and director of Indiana University Health’s Catherine Peachey Breast Cancer Prevention Program, which began in 2001. The program, which was started at University Hospital, now includes IU Health North.
“We see women who are high risk–for any reason. Some have strong family histories or genetic mutations, others don’t. We’ve put in place a process at the time of breast screening at IU Health to help us understand which women are high risk for the disease. Once we identify these patients, we ask them if they want to partake in our program which can include services like genetic counseling, MRIs, ultrasounds or evaluation of blood markers.”
The approach has made an impact. “We’ve caught a lot of early cancers,” she says.
But who was Catherine Peachey?
“Catherine was one of the earliest breast cancer advocates in Indiana,” recalls Dr. Storniolo. “She was responsible for the passage of Indiana’s off-label drug law. The big cancer drug at the time was called Taxol and it was in short supply. When the FDA approved a drug they approved it in a narrow way so those who didn’t fit that criteria couldn’t have it covered by insurance. When Catherine was sick there weren’t many drugs for breast cancer. She advocated for expanding the use of Taxol and other drugs, turning them into ‘off label’ options [making them available to more cancer patients with various circumstances]. Indiana was one of the first states to implement this kind of law, so Catherine left quite a legacy.”
Tragically, Peachey never lived to see the fruits of her labor. She passed away in her thirties but the prevention center lives on in her name. “Our team consists of several physicians, nurse practitioners, genetic counselors as well as a menopause specialist. If a patient needs imaging or surgery we refer them for those services, too,” says Dr. Storniolo.
Working in a world that focuses on cancer could be overwhelming to some but Dr. Storniolo says she simply takes each day as it comes. “Living is about learning,” she says. “And I love the fact that I learn something new here every single day.”
— By Sarah Burns