An athlete her entire life, Melinda Irwin, PhD, MPH, originally planned on specializing in orthopedics. But college courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and human anatomy led her to shift gears to public health. She ultimately decided to pursue a PhD, rather than an MD, in order to explore the connection between lifestyle factors and chronic disease.
Since joining Yale in 2001, Dr. Irwin has concentrated on the role of lifestyle behaviors in cancer prevention and prognosis.This is increasingly relevant for breast cancer – the focus of much of her work - since mortality has decreased during the past two decades but survivors are at risk for recurrence and debilitating side effects due to treatment. Her work has shown that
even after women have been diagnosed with breast cancer, they can substantially lower the risk of both recurrence and mortality by exercising. This holds true even for women who don’t become physically active until after their diagnosis.
She has expanded her research into other cancers, showing that a moderate-intensity walking program improved physical functioning and reduced cancer-related fatigue in patients diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Dr. Irwin, who considers herself a biobehavioral researcher, is also examining the effect of exercise and weight loss on cancer biomarkers, showing that weight loss decreased C-reactive protein, a marker of systemic inflammation related to cancer. Her current research interests are focused on examining whether lifestyle behaviors also indirectly improve survival via improvements in medication adherence.
“Given the improvement in treatment for many diseases, especially cancer, some people have a window of opportunity to change their lifestyle,” she said. “Others may already be living a healthy lifestyle but have difficulty maintaining it because of treatment, so we need to help them do that.”Dr. Irwin hopes that this line of research will lead to incorporating weight management and exercise management into the clinic as part of reimbursable cancer care, in much the same way that cardiac rehabilitation is now standard of care.
Dr. Irwin is interested in the effects of exercise on other chronic diseases and is excited about her role at YCCI, which is allowing her to collaborate with faculty across the Yale campus. She is focusing on creating efficiencies between centers and expanding resources and opportunities for public health and population science research. She is equally eager to foster opportunities for junior faculty and feels better equipped to mentor younger colleagues after taking YCCI’s course on mentoring.
“I hope to be able to give back in terms of more collaborations, synergies, efficiencies, and training opportunities,” she said.