October 21, 2013 at 4:42 pm , by Amelia Harnish
In May of 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress with his ambitious plan to land a man on the moon before the end of that decade. Critics across the country balked. How could NASA possibly pull off something so incredible in such a short time? But the following year John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. And on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted a flag on the moon.
Today, Fran Visco, president of National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC), says we need a similarly bold goal to end breast cancer—not in some distant future for our daughter’s daughters, but by the year 2020. “The Apollo Project looked at where technology was at the time, and simply asked, ‘How can we apply this to getting on the moon?’ NBCC is doing the same thing,” she explains.
Two Octobers ago, LHJ ran an interview with Visco (right) to mark the launch of NBCC’s deadline. (Click here to read that interview to get a primer on Visco and NBCC.) Recently, we caught up with her to chat about the progress so far.
LHJ: The last time you talked with us, NBCC had just announced its ambitious goal to end breast cancer by 2020. What’s the latest?
FV: The scientists we’re working with have made progress in identifying targets for a preventive vaccine against breast cancer, and we’re on track to be in Phase 1 clinical trials with it in three years. We’re also making progress in our work on stopping metastasis.
We’ve been able to change the conversation among the research community, which is huge. To give you an example, recently I was invited to speak to an auditorium full of clinicians and researchers at a major cancer center. When I asked the organizers why they wanted me to speak, they said the researchers talk about the deadline campaign a lot among themselves when they talk about their work. That’s exciting because no one even thought this was a possibility when we started, and now there’s enthusiasm and momentum. Instead of asking us, “How on earth are you going to end breast cancer?,” researchers and doctors are now asking us, “How can I help you end breast cancer?” That’s a big deal because the National Breast Cancer Coalition isn’t going to do this alone.
LHJ: What drove your decision to focus on those two areas—metastasis and developing a vaccine?
FV: What we want to do is move away from toxic drugs. If you were diagnosed with breast cancer today, you would be treated with drugs and possibly radiation, both of which can have life-threatening side effects. One of my dear friends, Carolina Hinestrosa, who was the executive vice president of NBCC, died in 2009 of a cancer caused by the radiation treatment she got for her breast cancer. That’s why we’re focusing on developing a safe preventive vaccine—so women don’t have to go through that in the first place.
For the most part, women do not die from a breast tumor. Metastasis is responsible for 90 percent of all breast cancer deaths. If we could stop that process, so that if you do get breast cancer you won’t die from it, that would be enormous. Most recently we put together a think tank of 17 scientists and advocates to look at the issue of tumor dormancy. Why does cancer stay dormant for months or years in some women? Can we learn how to keep it that way? I recall reading several years ago about a group of engineers who were talking about filters for blood flow to “catch” cancer cells. I have no idea if that is even possible but that is the kind of innovative thinking we want to encourage. We still lose too many women to this disease, and unfortunately, early detection is not the answer.
LHJ: Do you think the major focus on early detection has actually slowed progress?
FV: The problem is early detection can only do so much. We’ve spent way too much energy, attention and resources on early detection and it hasn’t gotten us very far. This year, an estimated 108 women will die of breast cancer every day. In 1991, just a few years after I was diagnosed, that number was 119.
The world has raised billions of dollars for breast cancer research, but the mortality rates haven’t changed very much. So it’s not that we’re not catching breast cancer early enough or that we haven’t raised enough money, it’s that we’re not focusing our efforts on the right things. That’s why we want NBCC to have an oversight role, which means we want to set priorities and oversee how the money is being spent.
LHJ: You are also lobbying Congress to pass the Accelerating the End of Breast Cancer Act. What would the bill accomplish? And we have to ask, has the current political climate in Washington gotten in the way?
FV: It is definitely slowing things down because Congress is dealing with other pressing issues, but I hope it won’t be a barrier to getting it done.
What we are trying to do with the bill is create a systematic way to leverage the investments we’ve already made in research. We’re not asking for more money, we’re asking to create an entity that can bring people together to collaborate. We have a lot of tools, technology and knowledge already, but none of this stuff is being translated into things that actually help people. That’s exactly how this is like the Apollo project. Let’s look at where the science is and figure out how to accomplish the goal, rather than just making another drug or another tool. I truly believe that now is the time to do that. Let’s take all this awareness, all this funding and work together to end breast cancer for good.
To learn more about NBCC’s work and how you can help, head to breastcancerdeadline2020.org.