The Last Woman to Die of Breast Cancer


Will I see the last woman die of breast cancer in my lifetime?

I don’t know her name and I may never, but after all the studies and new drugs that were announced this month at ASCO, I feel that in my lifetime, there will be one special woman who will be the last one to die of this disease. I am an optimist, you see. I have had this dream for many years.

A decade ago, I remember feeling incredibly depressed that the “cut- burn-poison” approach to treating cancer was still pretty much the standard.

Then the new advances in bioengineering began to arrive. This was a way to kill the cancer cells with no side effects, a way to possibly save the breast. My God — are we talking cure? For the first time, the word was introduced.

Having been diagnosed 30 years ago, I have seen a number of miracle drugs come on the market, each one heralded as "the drug"— you know the ones. They were “the answer” for breast cancer. The first one I recall was Taxol, it was supposed to do the trick – but it didn’t. Cancer is too complicated, we learned. Some cancers will respond to some drugs, but others won’t. Not all breast cancer is the same. When I was diagnosed, you either had breast cancer or you didn't. It was clear cut.

But why did some women live and others didn't? We all had breast cancer.

Looking into the complexities of cancer gave us some insight into how complicated treatment is. And we knew that treatment would have to be individualized.

Skeptic that I am, I had hope. Not for me, but for my daughter. I saw us creeping toward answers that may apply to her should she ever face this disease. I still don’t know if she is at greater risk. I was 37 when I was diagnosed. She is 32 in September. We don't have the gene, but what else predisposes her?

Then I thought of the women I know who are in need of a cure now — the women who are waiting to see if the next drug will do it.

I can remember crying a few years ago when I read the story of the drug Herceptin in the Emperor of All Maladies, the book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, that told the story of the war on cancer. He relayed the story of the first group of women on the clinical trial when the drug was discovered.

When the women arrived for treatment, they would begin with a ritual of checking the lymph node in the neck of one woman whose cancer was extensive. The node was palpable, but, as the drug took effect, the women watched it diminish — then disappear.

Herceptin was a magic bullet for women who had the HER2-positive oncogene. But they were only one group of women who are diagnosed, and it doesn’t work for all of them. But it was a huge step.

Then it hit me. In my lifetime, there might be the last woman who dies from breast cancer. I probably won’t know her name, but just the idea that she is out there gives me hope. Hope. I am ready for hope.

As it is, we are slowly reducing the number of women who die of breast cancer. But it is way too slowly for many of us. What has happened is that women with metastatic disease are living longer and with a better quality of life.

But I want cure. Now

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