The following blog appeared in The Huffington Post on February 4, 2014.
Development of the polio vaccine, progress in AIDS research and new cancer treatments — these are just a sample of how much we owe to an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951. The world learned of her heretofore unacknowledged contributions in one of the most compelling reads of the last few years – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
Mrs. Lacks’ cancer cells were taken without her knowledge or permission, and because they replicated almost without end, her “immortal” cells, called HeLa cells (short for Henrietta Lacks) have arguably been one of the most powerful tools in medical research ever since. It’s fitting, during Black History Month and on World Cancer Day, that we acknowledge and honor the contributions of this one African-American woman to medical history.
I think of what cancer patients like Henrietta Lacks endured in the 1950s, when segregation laws meant that African Americans could legally be treated in “colored wards” of hospitals or denied treatment all together. Skloot notes in the book that African Americans often were treated at later stages of their disease. A Johns Hopkins University study in 1966 reported that African-American women with breast cancer in the 1950s had lower survival rates than the national average, and far below those of their white counterparts.
With segregation thankfully a thing of the past, we are still deeply concerned about outcomes for African-American women facing breast cancer today. Although African-American women are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, they are still 41 percent more likely to die of it than white women. African-American women also are more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage and aggressive breast cancers, and more likely than white women to be diagnosed under the age of 45, according to American Cancer Society statistics (there is extensive information about African Americans and breast cancer on our website).
More than 40 years ago, the United States declared a “War on Cancer,” implementing the National Cancer Act (NCA) in 1971. For those who have wondered, “What did that really mean? What have we really accomplished?” the answer is promising.
Two new reports published last month showed that 1) cancer death rates in the U.S. have continued to decline by about 20 percent in the last 20 years (with breast cancer mortality declining by 34 percent since 1990), and 2) fewer years of life have been lost to cancer since the NCA was passed.
Today – World Cancer Day – is the perfect time to mark what we as a community, a nation, and individuals have made possible in the U.S. It’s clear that advances in research, early detection and more effective treatments, have led to more years with family and friends, more memories and more hope here in our country.
The war on cancer, however, extends far beyond our borders, with huge impacts on regions of the world where resources are scarce.
The International Association of Research on Cancer (IARC) reports that cancer cases are expected to rise to 22 million annually over the next 20 years, and cancer deaths will grow from 8.2 million to 13 million each year. Low-and-middle-income countries will feel this impact the worst as their populations grow and age: IARC reports that more than 60 percent of the world’s cancer cases occur in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. These regions account for about 70 percent of the world’s cancer deaths.
This increase creates what IARC calls an “impossible” strain on health-care systems even in richer countries. The global impact of cancer is estimated by IARC at $1.16 trillion US dollars in 2010.
Our promise at Susan G. Komen is to save lives and end breast cancer. It’s a monumental task, but with more than $2.5 billion invested in this fight, we are working passionately towards the day when no one has to hear the words “you have breast cancer.”
We are in communities across the U.S., ensuring women and men have access to treatment, financial and social support programs. We’re in laboratories around the globe, searching for answers to some of the most challenging questions in breast cancer with more than $800 million invested to date.
And our work continues in state capitols across the country – and in our own National Capitol. Public policy continues to be a key area of focus at Komen. We are proud of our advocacy work over the years to protect breast cancer screening and research funding and to advance breast health and cancer care policy at the federal and state levels. It is absolutely critical that breast cancer patients have access to lifesaving treatment and quality breast cancer care if we expect to continue to make progress against this disease.
Guest post by Komen’s Advocates in Science (AIS) member, Karen Durham.
After finding a suspicious lump in October 2008 and undergoing a series of tests and scans my diagnosis was confirmed in Feburary 2009 – I had metastatic breast cancer. After much discussion with my oncologist, she began searching for a clinical trial that I could participate in.
Within a month, I enrolled in a trial that compared the standard of care with the standard of care plus a drug that was approved for certain leukemias. Scientific evidence suggested this drug might be useful in solid tumors like mine.
As a member of Komen’s Advocates in Science (AIS) community, I had attended the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in the past, and when I received the 2013 Program in the mail and saw that “my” clinical trial was going to be presented , I knew I would be attending again.
I don’t know if I can adequately describe the surreal feeling of sitting in a huge auditorium, packed with thousands of people, to hear the results of my own clinical trial. I was very fortunate to have several Komen AIS members, some Komen research staff, and a very dear friend sitting with me for support. I knew that my cancer had not grown in nearly 5 years, but did not know how the rest of the trial was progressing. I was both nervous and excited to learn more.
More than 3,500 Direct Energy Services employees demonstrated what it really means to get one step closer to a world without breast cancer when they participated in an employee program last October, walking and running more than 200,000 miles – all in the name of Susan G. Komen.
Employees wore pedometers throughout the month of October, logging the number of steps they took or miles they ran. For every mile, Direct Energy Services contributed $.50, and yesterday, Direct Energy Services Director of Retail Sales and Marketing Troy Latuff joined Komen President and CEO Dr. Judy Salerno, Komen Managing Director of Health and Program Education, Susan Brown, and breast cancer survivor Karen Murtha to show the impact every step can have in the fight against breast cancer, presenting Komen with a check for $100,000!
“I hope you know that with your donation today, you’re making it possible for Susan G. Komen to keep helping tens of thousands of people who turn to us for assistance during one of the toughest times in their lives,” said Dr. Salerno.
The funds will go to the Susan G. Komen National Treatment Assistance Fund which provides financial assistance for individuals undergoing breast cancer treatment. This Fund aims to reduce the financial and emotional stress that often comes with a breast cancer diagnosis, and helps pay for items such as medication, child care and medical equipment.
We’d like to give a big thank you to Direct Energy Services, its employees and everyone who helps make this important work possible!
Read more about the National Treatment Assistance Fund.