The Culprit is Cancer
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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.
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,"
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
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."
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.
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."