Two years ago, Debbie Cabrera and her pink-clad supporters walked in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in downtown Miami. She carried a sign: “My last day of chemo is Thursday.”
Six months earlier, Cabrera, then a 47-year-old single mom who had just started a new job as a marketing program manager, got a call from her radiologist. She was about to start a strategy meeting with her director. She stepped out of the conference room to answer the phone.
“You have cancer.”
As she went outside to gather her thoughts, she had already made the decision to fight.
“I looked up to the sky and said, ‘Hey, You save me and I’ll make sure everyone knows it was you.’ ”
Her oncologist, Dr. Stefan Gluck at the University of Miami, gave her a few treatment options, ranging from gentle and risky to harsh and thorough. Cabrera said she wanted the strongest science had to offer. Her doctor warned that it would be rough.
“It’s going to get you,” he said.
“It’s not going to get me. It’s going to heal me,” she responded.
Treatment for breast cancer has advanced enormously in the past two decades, propelled by the urgency of survivors and family members to find a cure. One in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Every 13 minutes, one of these patients dies.
A study published last month from The Cancer Genome Atlas, part of the National Institutes of Health, has identified four distinct genetic types of breast cancer, which could mean new targeted treatments for the next generation of breast cancer patients. The search for a cure is what inspires the walkers and runners in Saturday’s Komen Race for the Cure. Komen is the largest non-profit, non-governmental source of breast cancer research funding in the country.
Charles Perou, the lead author of last month’s study, has long been supported by Komen grants for his breast cancer research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For this project, researchers examined the genetic profiles of 825 tissue samples from breast cancer patients. The tissue bank at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine contributed.
By discovering the genetic signatures of the four types of breast tumors, Perou’s study will help researchers explore possible cures more strategically. Scientists were already aware of the four kinds of breast cancer, but now they have identified the precise DNA mutations that cause protein production in cells to spiral out of control and become deadly.
Dr. Carmen Gomez, the director of the UM tissue bank and one of the study authors, said the findings will be especially important for women with one type of cancer: the Basal-like tumors that disproportionately affect women of African descent. Also known as “triple negative,” the Basal-like cancer is the only kind for which there are no targeted therapies, only chemo.
“Chemo is like a dynamite blast that kills normal proteins along with the bad. Targeted therapies are like a sniper that goes after the specific proteins that cause the tumors to grow,” Gomez said. “With what this study tells us about the genes that code for these proteins, we want to develop more effective targeted drugs.”