Dr. Rebecca Aft

Dr. Rebecca Aft. Photo: Kristi Foster

By Patricia Corrigan, Special to the Light

Dr. Rebecca Aft spends her days in surgery, in hospital rooms guiding cancer patients to recovery, in classrooms, in a research laboratory — and, at the end of each busy day, at home with her husband, her teenage daughter and her 2-year-old daughter. Her son lives in Israel.

“It’s hard to balance it all,” says Aft. “There are never enough hours in the day, but my family – especially my husband — is an enormous support to me. I was really surprised to learn about the Unsung Hero Award, because there are so many people who do so much more. I just do my daily thing.”

Aft’s “daily thing” originally was cancer research. A native St. Louisan, Aft earned her doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and then did post-doctoral work at Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, where she and her husband, Reuven Kenigsberg were married. She then accepted a faculty position at St. Louis University. While there, Aft entered medical school at Washington University, where she now is on the faculty.

“I always thought I was going to do cancer research. Cancers do not obey the biological rules of the body, and that makes them interesting,” says Aft. “But at some point I realized to really understand cancer, I needed to see patients.” 

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That’s when she enrolled in medical school. Aft “fell in love” with surgery and ultimately decided to focus on breast cancer surgery. One of Aft’s grandmothers had breast cancer, and Aft notes that that may have subconsciously influenced her. 

“Patient care is the number one priority,” says Aft. “When people are diagnosed with cancer, they need an advocate, someone to take them through the treatments, provide guidance through their surgery and therapy.”

Aft is an excellent advocate, says Jill Conway, the nurse coordinator at the Breast Health Center in the Siteman  Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “Dr. Aft is so compassionate – her heart is bigger than life itself. She is just like the (Energizer) Bunny — her energy never stops,” says Conway. Cindy Moon, the manager of the Breast Health Center, agrees, noting that Aft “values every patient and provides a fantastic level of care over and above what is expected.” 

Aft’s research work enhances her patient care. “We don’t study tumors or metastases. We study the cells that are in between the tumors and the metastases. We are looking for new ways to detect these cells and target them,” says Aft.

“We think that these intermediary cells — between tumors and metastases — reside in the bone marrow.  Women who have detectable cancer cells in their bone marrow are at increased risk of developing metastases not only in the bone, but also in other organs.  We are attempting to molecularly characterize these cells to identify the cells that are most likely to become further metastases.”

Aft reports that some clinical trials are underway; others are scheduled to begin soon. In a decade or so, cancer survivors may be able to take a pill that will stop cancer cells in bone marrow from growing and causing recurrence of the disease.

“If we figure this out, we think this is important,” says Aft. “We need to give targeted therapy to patients. Currently, when we give chemotherapy to patients, only a small percentage benefit, but we don’t know who they are.”

All that makes this is an exciting time to be working in cancer research. “We are working on a number of things to help patients, and other researchers also have things in the pipeline nationally — to be a part of it is just wonderful,” she says. “Everybody I know, everybody I work with, cares intensely for cancer patients.”

That level of dedication makes Aft’s work enormously fulfilling. She speaks of the  exciting treatments already available, and of her many patients with good prognoses. “Today, if cancer is caught and treated early, the survival rate is over 90 percent,” says Aft. 

“Even when someone has a bad prognosis and I worry – sometimes that person will still be alive 10 years later. Because my faith is a huge part of my life, I know that no matter what, ultimately it’s all in God’s hands.”

Dr. Rebecca Aft 

FAMILY: Married to Reuven Kenigsberg, a former businessman who is now a stay-at-home dad

HOME: Chesterfield 

OCCUPATION: Professor of surgery at Washington University Medical School, surgeon, breast cancer researcher 

FAVORITE PASTIME: Spending time with family