October 18, 2019

5 questions with a breast cancer epidemiologist

Karen Wernli’s research incorporates patient perspectives to address clinical questions.

Dr. Wernli, her husband, and their daughter and son on Burroughs Mountain trail, with Mount Rainier in the background.

What motivated you to become a research scientist and study breast cancer?

When I was 10, I burned my leg on the side of my brother’s motorcycle. My parents didn’t have health insurance then, so we treated it at home, and I couldn’t go to school for 2 weeks. That event led me to care deeply about how to help people when they are injured or sick, as well as how to increase everyone’s access to health care.

Throughout college, I worked for epidemiologists and had the opportunity to see how they think about population health and how they conceive of scientific questions and answer them. Later, I pursued a master’s degree and a fellowship at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, where I saw cancer’s impact on people’s everyday lives and decisions. At Kaiser Permanente my research focuses on strategies to make cancer care — from screening to diagnosis and survivorship — accessible, effective, and safe. One of my projects has focused on cancer screening in women already diagnosed with breast cancer. I am also interested in women who don’t get screened regularly — and how we can support them and connect them with care. 

Karen Wernli, PhD
Karen Wernli, PhD, associate investigator at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute.

Why is Kaiser Permanente a good home for your research?

In my work, I collaborate actively with Kaiser Permanente members and translate their interests and concerns into research questions I can answer. I really appreciate working with a multidisciplinary group of colleagues to consider the whole patient. Instead of merely looking at risk factors for disease, I can think more globally about the person in a process that extends from cancer screening through detection and treatment, and then eventually to survivorship care.

Tell us more about your innovative work with patients.

I worked alongside 2 patient partners who greatly helped us because they asked questions that were relevant for patients and helped to interpret our results from the patient perspective. The patient point of view is important because it provides insight into their day-to-day challenges. As a research scientist, it’s important to know what matters most to patients and keep that front and center throughout the research process.

How has your research contributed to knowledge about breast imaging?

Through the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium, my Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute-funded project found that supplementing yearly mammograms with breast MRI led to unneeded biopsies in breast cancer survivors. We had shown in previous research that in practice, breast MRI is being used to screen a growing number of women who have had breast cancer — often between yearly mammograms. But more testing isn’t always better. The extra screening is not necessarily an improvement over what would have been detected in usual care with mammography. 

What do you like to do for fun?

Thanks to my Swiss husband, who grew up hiking in the Alps, our family loves hiking in the mountains near Seattle. When I am trying to solve a complex research challenge, I imagine the tundra-like terrain of the Burroughs Mountains Trail, where you see a part of Mount Rainier that’s otherwise inaccessible. We hike it together yearly, and each time it looks different. I think long hikes are a great way to learn persistence: to keep going all the way to the end, despite wanting to give up. It’s a great metaphor for what is often required to achieve success in research.   

Read more about Kaiser Permanente’s research on breast cancer.