Survivor Catherine Rosenberg Works With Her Doctors, Professors to Improve Medical Techniques for Lymphedema

Catherine Rosenberg’s research project at Stockton helped her get a full scholarship for a Ph.D. program in Computational Integrative Biology at Rutgers University-Camden beginning in January.

Working with her doctor from Fox Chase Cancer Center and professors at Stockton, Rosenberg applied a much more accurate method of measuring the volume of limbs in patients suffering from lymphedema. This condition results when a compromised lymphatic system cannot drain lymphatic fluids back into the bloodstream due to an obstruction found in the lymphatic system.

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Rosenberg’s project is rooted in her own medical history. She had Synovial Cell Sarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer at age 8. She was the youngest diagnosed and is currently the longest living survivor in the United States after 25 years. At initial diagnosis, there were no treatment protocols and the survival rate was not high.

Now 33, she is grateful that the experimental radiation treatment she had worked, but its effects caused her to develop lymphedema. One of her legs was 27 percent larger in volume than the other due to the fluid retention. She had a Vascularized Lymph Node Transfer at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia on May 1 to help relieve the symptoms. There was no guarantee this was going to work but it was definitely worth a chance, she said.

In monitoring her recovery and talking with her plastic and reconstructive surgeon, Dr. Eric Chang, Rosenberg thought she could improve upon the current method being used to calculate the volume of fluid in her leg.

“Having this condition myself made this research a lot of fun to complete as I was able to apply the various numerical methods for calculating the volume of a limb to my own measurements,” said Rosenberg, who will receive her Master’s in Computational Science this month.

“My ultimate goal was to reduce the calculation error associated with the current method while being able to easily manipulate the formulas based on varying lengths of limbs,” she said. “In the end, we were able to reduce the numerical calculation error by about 87 percent and improve the accuracy of the calculations by about 97 percent when compared to a true volume of a limb. These improvements are dependent on the actual circumference measurements taken on patients.”

Rosenberg said Dr. Chang was integral to her research.

“Without him, this project would have never surfaced,” she explained. “Dr. Chang was very helpful in getting me various pieces of information pertaining to my personal measurements, and sitting down with me to answer a million questions about why specific calculations are being done the way they are. We discussed the positives and negatives of the various methods available to calculate volume of a limb. I requested to have my next set of measurements completed using both of the current methods available. In November, Dr. Chang arranged to have my leg volume measured by both the standard tape measure method as well as the optical electronic device known as the perometer. This was done so we could compare my proposed methods to the current method as well as the volume calculation obtained from the perometer, which supposedly is the most accurate method currently available secondary to water displacement.”

“I knew we would get better results using different numerical methods than the current one being used,” she said. “Did I expect the improvement rates of the accuracy and the reduction in error to be as high as they were? No, but I am glad I was able to suggest these improvements.”

Rosenberg’s research project is one of many impressive achievements, all made while bucking the odds.

First: In addition to being a cancer survivor, she has a non-verbal learning disability.

“Math and science are no problem, but reading comprehension is very difficult,” she said. “Multiple choice tests are complex for me, I’d prefer essay or mathematical tests where I can truly show my knowledge of a concept without having to choose the more correct answer.”

Second: She had to have a hip replacement two years ago due to the effects of the radiation – and there were later complications. “At 96 days post total hip replacement, the weight of my leg from my lymphedema pulled my newly replaced hip right out of the socket. I needed to have emergency surgery the following day to put the hip back into place and a special liner inserted to prevent this from happening in the future,” she said.

Despite all that, plus undergoing continued treatment for lymphedema, she earned her B.S. in Mathematics from Stockton in 2008, a Master’s in Teaching Special Education from New Jersey City University in 2010, and now, her master’s in Computational Science from Stockton with a GPA of 3.76.

She earned both master’s degrees while working as an elementary special education teacher at George J. Mitchell Elementary School in Little Egg Harbor Township, her hometown in Ocean County. She also plays the flute for Atlantic Pops Community Band in Egg Harbor Township and is a camp counselor for Ronald McDonald Camp, a one-week camp for children with cancer and their siblings.

“My parents have always been behind me 100 percent of the way with my personal, educational and career goals,” she said.

Rosenberg’s research project also drew on the expertise of professors in three different departments at Stockton.

Russ Manson, professor of Physics, was her adviser. He reviewed the entire project and also assisted in editing the statistical analysis program she is developing to track patient success with the surgery over time based on a multitude of variables. Suzanne Nezzar, associate professor of Mathematics, reviewed the math concepts Rosenberg was using to compare the various volume calculation methods available to the current method being used. Ron Hutchison, associate professor of Biology, helped Rosenberg look at various methods by which to calculate the actual volume of a limb using water displacement; however these were too complex to apply because the actual volume of an unaffected leg is about 13,000 mL.

Her eventual “dream job” is to work in a bioinformatics lab at a cancer center using computers to model and predict the outcomes of cancer based on various treatment protocols, she said.

What’s her advice for other students?

“Never let your dreams go. Always follow what your heart is telling you to do. This project was driven by my heart and the fact that I was on a medical leave from my current job and was bored. I needed something to fulfill my time so I followed my dream in applying math, computers and biomedical sciences in a research project.”