Dear Chris: Because my mother had breast cancer, which obviously makes me concerned about my own health, I am devoted to the activities of the breast cancer awareness organizations. Every year those of us who participate in walks and fundraisers always wonder if we are getting closer to a cure. It would be the dream we've sought for years. Are we close? Rose in Lincolnshire
Dear Rose: I remember from school days a mathematical trick that went this way: You are 50 miles away from the end of the train line and every day the train goes half way to the end. If we are 25 miles away after the first day and 12.5 miles on the second day, how long will it take to reach the end?
The trick answer is “never.” That's because by cutting the trip by half in each increment, mathematically the train never gets to the end, only 50 percent closer than it was yesterday.
So how close are we to a cure for breast cancer? The real answer is closer than we were yesterday and not as close as we'll be tomorrow. You can read 50 different assessments of current research and see the same answer. That's because not only is breast cancer a horrific event in a woman's life, the disease itself is far more complicated than other devastating diseases for which cures were relatively straight forward once researchers found the key - polio, measles and smallpox, for example.
As for breast cancer, there is no widely accepted understanding even for what causes it.
In each of its many stages, breast cancer acts slightly differently and needs different treatment approaches. It goes slow; it goes fast; it stays in one spot and then moves all over the body. It plays hide and seek.
But if I had to guess, there will be something that looks like a “cure” but we might be years away from it being available to women. This either raises your hope, or makes you more fearful.
In 2010 Cleveland Clinic cancer research leader and immunologist Vincent Tuohy announced the broad outline of a vaccine that he said would be the first draft of a cure. It had worked in mice. The next step would be human trials. The drug hinges on harnessing the protein mechanisms inside cells that turn on some triggers and turn off others.
The Cleveland researchers say flatly that it works almost perfectly, or has in mice. But cures that work on mice don't always work on humans.
The only hitch is that a woman needs to be 40 and older to avoid involving lactation which interferes in the process. Theoretically, it would save millions of lives. That announcement in spring 2010 sent shock waves through the nation's media. It was reported everywhere. But there has been little news since because the research project needed to raise another $16 million to launch human trials.
But even Tuohy, and many other researchers worldwide who support him, says that a finished vaccine is at least a decade away. Clinical trials take time and intense care to make sure they are valid.
Researchers of Tuohy's reputation don't say the “cure” word unless they are very sure. He has stuck by his assessment that “breast cancer is a totally preventable illness.”
So, we are close. Very close. But we're not there yet.
I still count this as a giant reason for hope, and there have been times when hope hasn't been matched with the evidence.