Can you believe I was invited to pay tribute to “Wonder Woman” in Baltimore last month? It’s true! I’ve never been so proud or excited. At 60 years old, that’s saying something.
For the record, I’m talking about my friend and shero, the late Angela Brodie, Ph.D., the world-renowned pharmacologist who discovered the aromatase inhibitor, Arimidex (anastrozole), for the treatment of hormone receptor (HR)-positive breast cancer, considered by experts to be one of the most significant breast cancer breakthroughs in the last 150 years.
Brodie saved my life. She also saved, or greatly prolonged, the lives of many women — and some men — around the world whose particular form of breast cancer is fueled by estrogen. Arimidex, which is an oral anticancer drug, works to lower the amount of estrogen in the body. It’s one of three aromatase inhibitors approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Simply put, by depriving cancer of its energy source, cancer recurrence is vastly reduced.
But that’s just the tip of this heroic iceberg.
The late scientist, professor emeritus at University of Maryland (UMD) School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and recipient of 10 esteemed awards during her illustrious career, including the Komen Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction and the coveted Kettering Prize for Cancer Research (she was the only woman to receive this), was honored posthumously on March 28 at the 2018 Women’s History Month Celebration presented by UMD in partnership with its School of Medicine.
Celebrated for her amazing legacy not only as one of the world’s most preeminent female scientists in an era dominated by her (often chauvinistic) male counterparts, but also as a modest and kind individual who always strived to put the needs of others above herself, an audience of colleagues and students hungry for inspiration in the wake of recent female empowerment movements filled the auditorium.
I was privileged to participate among three distinguished female panelists from the scientific community who shared stories of a brilliant, young immigrant scientist from England whose pioneering work in the United States at the legendary Worcester Foundation in the 1960s would turn to a “steely” determination and resolve at UMD School of Medicine to seek to an end to the routine and barbaric radical mastectomies so commonplace in surgical practice in the 1970s with a pharmacological, less-invasive alternative.
It would take close to two decades to get the aromatase inhibitor to market. Angela’s scientific peers looked askance at those compounds which did not cure cancer outright. Not to mention, at the panel, we discussed gender bias that Brodie likely faced throughout her career.
“Initially working in a laboratory with her husband, Harry Brodie, Ph.D., a chemist, Dr. Brodie's research in aromatase inhibitors began in the 1970s, when she was one of very few women in academic science and had to fight to find an audience for her research,” read a tabletop program from UMD School of Medicine at the event.
But triumph she did when the FDA approved Arimidex in 1995. More than 20 years later, it remains a gold standard for many patients diagnosed with HR-positive breast cancer.
In 2016, Brodie retired at the age of 82, more than three decades after developing the drug. Sadly, she died on June 7, 2017 of pancreatic cancer. Ironically, it was the fifth anniversary of my second mastectomy — the one I felt lucky to have prophylactically, due to the seriousness of my original diagnosis of stage 3b ER-positive breast cancer back in 2003.
As many in the survivor community can relate, during those early years when cancer threatened to rob me of all I held dear, I buried my deepest fears and distracted myself from the physical and emotional pain of the disease by any and all means, which I described in a much earlier article I wrote for CURE
titled, “Good Medicine
In the weeks that followed that post, nagging questions began haunting me. Who, I wondered, discovered Arimidex? (At the time, I didn’t even know the term “aromatase inhibitor.”) Was it a team effort at the drug company or an individual? If the latter, was it a man or a woman? Would the drug company tell me who it was, so I could thank them personally, or was it a company secret like the recipe for Coca-Cola?
The more I delved into the matter, the more fixated I became. Like an organ transplant recipient longing to meet their donor’s family and bond with them for life, so it was with me, obsessed to express not only my gratitude, but the appreciation of all those who had persevered breast cancer’s death grip.
And then it happened. At 2 a.m. on May 7, 2014, the name Angela Brodie appeared on my computer screen and with it, enough information to convince me that she discovered the active formula used in Arimidex to reduce ER-positive breast cancer recurrence.
When I saw her birth date, my heart sank: Sept. 28, 1934. I concluded she had either retired or, worse, may have died. But when I began surfing the UMD School of Medicine website, there she was. And, even more amazing: her profile and email address were staring right at me. I was shaking with excitement as I wrote:
“Dear Dr. Brodie, you don’t know me personally, but you saved my life and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I know I speak for women everywhere.
Because of you, I will live with more intention. I am sending you a copy of a personal
essay I wrote for CURE
as but a small token of my appreciation for, clearly, how
could I ever repay you?
I hit the send button and said a prayer.
It didn’t take long to hear back. In fact, she wrote the very next day:
“Dear Carolyn, I am so deeply moved that you have contacted me and only happy to reply. Your essay was pure poetry and I was rapt to read it. My entire adult life I have sought to end the painful ravages of a disease that took my closest friends and colleagues. Thus, it is with such satisfaction to know my work has had a positive effect on women like you.
And, thus, our friendship for the next three years, until her tragic death, began. The kindness of one Angela Brodie, Ph.D., world-renowned scientist comfortably ensconced amongst the constellation of celebrity — mostly male — researchers towards a total stranger. Me.
Brodie, I told the audience, was the very definition of the 2018 National Women’s History Month theme, and then some: “Nonetheless She Persevered: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” Despite gender barriers and inequality in the workplace, she fought nice
persistently for 20 years to get a drug into the hands of women who needed it to survive. Today, millions of women like me are alive because of her. They are alive and empowered by the sheer magnitude of our cancer survival experience to make this world a better place for everyone.