She held onto her dream of having children, but in 2001, shortly after her 40th birthday, the pain in her stomach became unbearable. On September 11th, when the Twin Towers fell, she rushed to the hospital in a fog of pain medication and underwent a hysterectomy with Dr. Isaacson. (Endometriosis pain is the leading cause of hysterectomies in American women aged 30 and over.)
“There was no decision,” recalled Dr. Griffith. “It was hysterectomy or death.”
Even after that, her illness returned twice. Then, in 2009, shortly after she turned to studying endometriosis, she faced a new obstacle: cancer.
Dr. Griffith likes to say that stage 2 breast cancer was a walk in the park compared to endometriosis. “Not like a super nice day – like a stormy day in the park,” she added. “But it was like people understood.” The colleagues wrote their cards, sent their meals and expressed their condolences. Her dean offered her a sabbatical semester.
Dr. Griffith soon learned that categorizing breast cancer research was way ahead of endometriosis. Doctors used molecular tests to classify patients into subtypes that dictated what targeted treatment they should receive. With endometriosis, “there are no metrics,” she said. “That was this big thing for me that crystallized like this.”
Dr. Griffith knew that her disease, like cancer, was not one disease but many, a Medusa of waving tentacles. She started with Dr. Lauffenburger, who had studied breast cancer for over a decade, to talk about how to take a similar approach to classifying endometriosis patients.
Together, they identified networks of inflammatory markers that tend to be associated with more painful manifestations of the disease and fertility, and published their results in Science Translational Medicines in 2014. The work has been cited as the first step in creating subtypes of the disease. “We really were together because it was his vision of systems biology, but filtered through my practical connection to the clinic,” said Dr. Griffith.
For the next year, she held lab meetings from her hospital bed between chemotherapy sessions. “We have literally changed our lab meetings,” said Dr. Nicole Doyle, a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Griffith’s lab at the time. “We just showed up for her chemotherapy treatments and sat with her there. This diagnosis had to adapt to her life, not the other way around. “