15 Years Stronger: stories of courage and progress

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Cancer will affect half of all men in their lifetime, as well as one in three women. Every 15 minutes, five women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and one will die. It is the leading cause of death for women aged 35 to 54.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. WAFF 48 Anchor Liz Hurley recently marked the 15th year since her initial breast cancer diagnosis. Cancer-free, Liz wanted to tell the stories of more women who went through the same trials and tribulations she did, as well as learn more about the progress we've made in the research and fight of this disease in the 15 years since.

Here is Liz's report as seen on WAFF 48 News. To the left, you will find links to extra insights from the interviewees and to resources mentioned in this story.

On the north side of Huntsville at WEUP  and on Huntsville's south side at Lite 96.9, you'll find two special women behind the microphones.

Their station's musical formats are different. Their fight is the same: beat aggressive breast cancer.

Micha Logan, or ML6 on WEUP's airwaves, is just 31 years old. "I'm a vegetarian. I don't drink. I don't smoke. This doesn't happen to young people. That's what I thought. I'm too young for this, but apparently not," she said.

Bonny O'Brien at Lite 96.9 is 48. She said she had a completely clear mammogram before she was diagnosed earlier this year. "I'm young. I have an 8 year old. I may not see her graduate from high school," Bonny said.

Bonny understandably is scared. I understand her fear. While Micha and Bonny are the current voices behind the microphone, 15 years it ago it was me. In Aug. 1998, I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. I was young, too. In my 30s. I had an 8 year old son and a 4 year old daughter. I had been situationally aware of breast cancer all of my life, but now, this disease that had already murdered my mom, was trying to kill me. I documented my journey and as a journalist, it became the  biggest story of my life.

I found a lump in my left breast and was diagnosed with a rare and difficult-to-treat form of breast cancer called Triple Negative Breast Cancer. Unfortunately, 15 years later it is still difficult to treat. There was nothing positive about my pathology report or my prognosis. My tumor was fast growing and had a greater chance to recur.

I felt as though I needed a winning battle plan to survive. My doctors, my husband and family agreed on a risky, cutting edge and opposite approach from my mother's treatment plan. Dr. Marshall Schreeder reversed the order. He left my tumor alone, inside me, injected me with 5 months of nasty, side-effect laced chemicals, all with the goal of shrinking my cancer before I had any surgery. The reasoning was simple: if the tumor shrinks or better yet, completely disappears, we had the right recipe.

In a follow up diagnostic test, midway through my neo-adjuvant chemotherapy (before surgery), the tumor was disappearing. Dr. Schreeder recalled, "We treated you preoperatively, and we essentially saw the tumor vaporize."

For Triple Negative Breast Cancer diagnosed today in North Alabama and around the world, this chemo-first approach is now common, and even gives women more surgical options.

"We were perhaps before our time," said Dr. Schreeder.

In 15 years, we have seen an explosion of advancements in North Alabama on the breast cancer front: high tech machines, and low-tech tools to diagnose, monitor and treat breast cancer; surgical techniques that offer women more choices and faster recovery times. New and improved drugs on the market give doctors and patients a fighting chance and medications to lessen the side effects of treatment. Physicians know more about environmental factors involved in breast cancer development. They also know more about our growing waistlines and diet's influence in breast cancer development.

What else has changed? Our region can boast having two of the biggest and busiest facilities at diagnosing and treating breast cancer- the Huntsville Hospital Breast Center and the physician-owned Clearview Cancer Institute.

Then there's the major research going on, where else, but Research Park. At the non-profit Hudson-Alpha Institute for Biotechnology, researchers are working on several breast cancer trials, including a $1 million grant to learn more about individuals genetics and tumors genomics.

Dr. Rick Myers heads the Institute. "Essentially, there are 7,8,9 different forms of breast cancer. Each type is going to be treated in a different way. Women who have one particular cause will need one particular drug and women with another cause will need to use a different drug. We just don't know those combinations yet," he said.

It's called "personalized medicine," and it doesn't get much more personal than at Kailos Genetics. This for-profit company shares a rooftop with Hudson-Alpha. It has a 20-second test that is currently in the marketplace and available at local doctor's offices.

Information from a quick cheek swab can give doctors, especially useful to oncologists, vital information on how you as a patient metabolize certain medications.  Troy Moore is the chief scientific officer for Kailos. "We can tell doctors proactively this drug is not going to be metabolized by the patient. Therefore, it is not going to be active in their body and it's not going to help them, and there are other drugs that will," said Moore.

Again, to be tested for not only oncologist drugs, but a complete list of other pharmaceuticals, contact your doctor.

Brian Pollack said, "This technology has broad-reaching capabilities and we'll be expanding this to cover many other disease states."

Next to Kailos is Conversant. It's a company that arms technicians with the tools they need for clinical trials. It matches scientists to the samples, saving precious time and money.

"We run a clinical trial where patients consent that we take tissue that is normally going to be resected - thrown away, and what we do is match those tissues with active research projects," said Marshall Schreeder Jr.

Such research projects take place at Serina Therapeutics. At Serina, they say they've transformed the glue on the top of a cereal box into a transport vehicle for a cancer "smart bomb." Serina claims it will kill any type of breast cancer before it multiplies.

"There are absolute cures with this technology. So far, we've done it in animals. The next step is humans," said Dr. Randall Moreadith.

MD's, PhD's and researchers are all talking about customizing therapies, matching the tumors to the treatment. Less toxic solutions and pharmaceuticals to better manage side effects. Hopefully soon, they'll convert breast cancer from a killer to a chronic disease, then render it non-existent.  Dr. Myers, "It's more than a dream. It's starting to happen now."

And that's just one of the marked differences in 15 years.

Another is mind-set, a different mind-set in tackling this disease. It's not the "try to kill the cancer while not killing you" mentality. It's not a goal to just get you through treatments (whatever treatments that may be), but get you -beyond- treatments.

"We don't just want to get you through chemo. We just don't want to keep you from having disease recurrence. We want you back to health. We want you back to full health… and we're making progress," said Dr. Schreeder.

To me, it's generational progress. My mom died at 37 and never saw me turn 13. I have lived to see my then-8 year old son and 4 year old daughter reach their twenties. That is progress!

It's also longevity that Bonny and Micha are counting on. Micha is, in her words, "all smiles. No worries. God's got this. Period!" Bonny is just taking it "one day at a time. God is driving the bus. We're just sitting in the back waiving".

Bonny has big plans, too. She and her daughter, Dana, will be taking that bus south, to "Disney World. Seriously, it's Disney."

For Micha, she's got higher aspirations. "I want to jump out of a plane. I think it's going to be a freeing experience," she said.

Probably very freeing, Micha, but nothing like being free of breast cancer. I know: I'm the first woman in my family in more than a century to be diagnosed… and live.

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