Dear Pinktober: Message From A Survivor Scientist
What do I think of all the pink in October? As a patient, I feel very fortunate to have a cancer that’s so visible; a cancer that so many people know about, talk about, and recognize. But I think our focus needs to be not just on wearing pink. As a scientist, I believe that raising money for research should be the number one priority. And I’m writing today to convince you that you should feel the same. Research is what will advance detection and treatment and that is what will ultimately end cancer. Make your pink mean something by making sure your focus is on ending cancer.
I first started studying cancer at MD Anderson Cancer Center as an eager beaver about to start graduate school. I learned all about the treatment course for breast cancer: surgery, chemo, and radiation. I studied the treatment diagrams oncologists used based on tumor sizing and staging (crazy to think that 7 years later I’d be pulling back out those same diagrams to see which track I’d be on). Those same guidelines are still relevant today and treatment is generally the same. And I can tell you from experience, it’s extremely brutal to go through all 3 of those steps. Don’t get me wrong, advancements have been made since then and I am incredibly grateful for those.
Here’s an example of a game changing advancement in breast cancer treatment. You may have heard of the term ‘HER2 positive.’ I am HER2 positive. For those of us that have HER2 positive disease, that means our cancer is very aggressive. It used to mean your chances of survival were a lot lower than women that were HER2 negative. Recent advances in cancer research have led to the development of targeted chemotherapies for HER2. What does that mean? That means the cancer cells have a lot more HER2 receptors on their surface than normal cells (picture a bunch of baseball gloves on the outside of my cancer cells, orange cups in the pic below). These HER2 receptors send a lot more signals to the cells to grow out of control, which is why it makes our tumors aggressive. Scientists have developed drugs that bind to the HER2 receptors to prevent the cells from further growth (picture baseballs that get caught in the baseball gloves, yellow squares in the pic below).
Why is targeted chemo better? Traditional chemo works by attacking all of your actively growing cells all over your body, which includes your cancer cells. That’s why it has all of those horrible side effects (that’s also why your hair falls out - it’s always growing). Targeted therapies only kill cancer cells, meaning minimal side effects. I can tell you first hand the difference between when I was on traditional chemo versus now, when I’m just on targeted therapy. I can function completely normally in my life now, whereas I had to take an entire week off from work after every infusion when I was on traditional chemo. Also, my hair sprouts are coming in full force now that I’m only on targeted therapy!
So why do we need to fund research? To keep making more advancements like this!! To fundamentally change how we treat cancer. Women with breast cancer still come out of treatment beat up. Our bodies are torn apart. We need more treatments that are targeted. So if you’re going to donate to breast cancer, make sure your donation is going to research. Let’s make sure that in another 7 years, the treatment diagram looks completely different.
Knowledge is power, babes. So I plan to keep empowering you. Let’s change the game for ourselves and future breast cancer warriors. And if there are questions you have about how this works or other topics you want me to cover that pertain to the science behind anything breast cancer-related, shoot them my way!
One last note, organizations that provide support to breast cancer patients are also pretty awesome (like The Breasties). So just do me a favor and check into what your purchases are going towards. Or if you’re not feeling it, ask me and I’m happy to check into it for you!
Here's a run-down on the 2 organizations that you’ll likely run into the most in Pinktober:
· Breast Cancer Research Foundation: This one is my favorite. In 2017, 88% of their money went to research and they solely fund research (not other programs). They’ve committed to upping that contribution to 90% for this year. So that’s pretty badass (over $60M went to research in 2017). They also work with over 100 brands so there are a lot of different products you can buy to support them.
· Susan G. Komen: in 2017, 75% of their money went to their programs, but of those programs, they only gave only 29% of their program money to research. However, since they are so large, that was equivalent to $40 million dollars. So they’re clearly making an impact on breast cancer (and frankly are probably the responsible party for making breast cancer so popular so kudos on that), but in my opinion they could shift more of their program money to research.
(This info came from charitynavigator.org if you want to look for yourself).
Disclaimer: I’m a scientist, not a medical professional so I won’t be providing medical guidance of any kind. And for all you critical scientists out there, I realize this is an extreme simplification of a complex receptor dimerization process that occurs with the HER2 receptor, but now my readers fundamentally understand how one of their therapies works so don’t bash me.