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Shame of a Nation
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The Man Who Knows Too Much
The Culprit is Cancer

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Fall 1998
The Culprit is Cancer
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Three years ago, a doctor advised Empey to put her affairs in order. She had tumors in her liver and had already undergone a mastectomy. She couldn't tolerate any more chemotherapy. "There's no point subjecting yourself to that kind of trauma," her doctor told her gently. But Empey fought her way to Slamon at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and entered the Phase III clinical trials of Herceptin. She was the very first of 469 women admitted to the main trial. "I beat on the door with a telephone," she laughed.

Though she was still weak and might have to remain on Herceptin for the rest of her life, Empey's tumors were all but gone. "I feel great," she said.

A reporter asked Empey, "By being so optimistic about your experience, making of yourself an example, aren't you concerned about raising false hopes?" Wasn't it true that Herceptin had not worked for everyone? Hadn't some of the women in the study died? Weren't some women dying still?

The 53-year-old grandmother thought for a moment. Then she said, "I'm the sickest person I've ever known and I'm recovering. I think that should be encouraging for a lot of women."

To fully appreciate the excitement Slamon's news would generate, one has to recall the sensational headlines that ran a few weeks earlier and acknowledge the potent dread that surrounds the subject of cancer. In early May, a front-page story in The New York Times sparked a media frenzy by quoting Nobel Laureate Dr. James Watson as saying that Dr. Judah Folkman, a respected Harvard cancer researcher, would "cure" the disease in two years. Almost immediately, glowing stories appeared in a number of publications about Folkman, whose focus is anti-angiogenesis - killing or shrinking tumors by cutting off their blood supply. Folkman's office and The National Institutes of Health (NIH) were besieged with calls from desperate patients wanting to know when this therapy would be available. The problem was, however, this marvelous new treatment had so far only been tested in mice.

"To dance around a stockpile of gasoline, lighting matches . . . You could predict what was going to happen," says Slamon one afternoon in late May of the incendiary effect of the Times story. "Cancer is a disease that connotes particular things to people. There are other diseases every bit as deadly - heart disease, for example. But we don't think about them in the same way. It's what cancer does to you as it progresses, what you have to go through to be treated for it."

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