Like a Boss: Radiation oncologist balances family and curing cancer
By Lauren Mingus
published July 27, 2022
Veterinary oncologist Keara Boss grew up in a pack; just like her canine patients.
“I spent my childhood with four siblings and two cousins on a large property in western Massachusetts,” said Boss. “We had a zoo of pets – dogs, rabbits, hamsters, birds, lizards, and turtles. We were a big pack of kids with a herd of pets. It was the best!”
Boss’s father is a physician, and she grew up admiring his love of medicine. Her mother was a teacher and then a lawyer, devoted to helping people who need an advocate. Both parents encouraged her interest in science. Inspired by her parent’s love of their careers and her love of animals, she knew she wanted to be a veterinarian from a very early age. “I went along on all veterinary appointments, and our very patient veterinarian listened to my questions and included me in the process,” she said.
Following through on her plan, Boss attended veterinary school at North Carolina State University after majoring in animal sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Her family continued to provide encouragement throughout her D.V.M. studies, residency, and Ph.D. program.
“They’ve known me through my career journey and have always provided support, even from a distance,” she said. “Family is incredibly important to me. They helped me become who I am and do what I do.”
Today, her husband, two kids, an energetic rescue pup, Daisy, and an old lady cat named Willis, provide daily support and inspiration.
“They give brightness and light at the start and end of my day,” said Boss.
Her young children help keep things lively, even on the hard days for a veterinarian treating pets with cancer: “My kids know I’m an animal doctor and that I do science experiments. They also know I’m a teacher, which they think is really funny.”
Pets are family, too
As a radiation oncologist at CSU’s Flint Animal Cancer Center, Boss cares for hundreds of pets diagnosed with cancer each year.
She approaches every patient as an essential family member and puts herself in her client’s shoes when it comes to diagnosis and treatment planning. “Pets are very much a part of my family, and I know our clients feel the same.”
That empathy makes Boss a good listener and a compassionate doctor focused on understanding her client’s goals for their pet’s care and working with them to decide on treatment plans that provide a good quality of life for their four-legged family members.
She also understands the weight of making treatment decisions during a highly emotional time. “It’s a big responsibility, but I want them to know they aren’t alone; they have a whole team to support them and their pet.”
Hope for pets and people with cancer
In addition to her clinical work, Boss studies radiation biology in the lab. She’s driven to find better treatments for the cancers she can’t cure on the clinic floor and prolong the quality time families share with their cherished pets.
Capitalizing on the connection between cancer in pets and people is also important.
“What we learn in veterinary patients, what we can achieve, feeds into the pipeline to make an impact on people; that’s what we’re trying to do.”
She’s particularly focused on head and neck cancers and how understanding every aspect of these malignancies can help pets and people.
And thanks to a prestigious Research Career Development award from the National Institutes of Health (known in academic circles as a K01), Boss has the unique opportunity to dedicate nine months per year over the next five years to her research. Additional funding from the National Cancer Institute’s Head & Neck Cancer Specialized Programs of Research Excellence will also bolster her research program.
“For faculty with a clinical role, having that much research time is hard to come by,” said Boss. “I’m excited for the opportunity to tie my two professional interests – from basic science side and clinical side; equipped and ready to provide meaningful translational research in head and neck cancer across species.”
Boss isn’t alone in her quest. For the last several years, she’s collaborated with Sana Karam, M.D., Ph.D., a radiation oncologist and scientist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. The pair share common goals and challenges in their commitment to caring for patients and searching for advances in the lab that will lead to better treatments.
“I feel enormously fortunate to be able to partner with another clinician-scientist who is as committed and as passionate to the mission of advancing patient care through research,” said Karam. “Our previous collaborations have resulted in high-impact work, and I do not doubt that Keara’s K01 award will generate meaningful data that we can use to benefit pets and people.”
Boss can’t wait to get started.
“This is something I’ve felt drawn to be a part of, to contribute to, for a long time. I’m excited to dive into the research – to connect data, results, and lab science to real-life animal and human cancer.”
“When I’m at work, it’s pedal to the metal. I love it so much – I wish I had more time to read, more time to learn and do more. I just want to keep working.”
Because of that drive, Boss intentionally steps out for a few minutes during a nice day to take walks and clear her head. She listens to the birds and the wind. “Time outside is really helpful during my day.”
Boss is equally committed to family time and credits her husband for his support. “When I leave the hospital or the lab, I switch off and focus on family and downtime. I protect my time on weekends and make sure when I’m on vacation; I’m on vacation.”
Focus on the future
Boss’s vision is to establish an impactful translational research program that contributes to progress in the quest for better treatments and outcomes for patients with head and neck cancers. The K01 award is the first step in what Boss hopes will be significant and sustainable funding to empower her mission to help pets and people.
“For me, cool science needs to mean something bigger in the end.”
Her thoughts on the future also naturally include her kids.
“Like my mom and dad modeled for me, I hope through my example my kids find something in their lives that they are drawn to and passionate about, and that hard work doesn’t feel like work. I hope they also enjoy a family life. In short, I hope they love their careers and life outside their work equally.”