Give Thanks and Give Back

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Guest Writer: Dede Hoffmann, Komen St. Louis Board President

During this special time of year, I like to reflect on all I’m thankful for. As a 12-year, two-time breast cancer survivor, I am fortunate to count my many blessings.

While some of us are blessed with good doctors, health insurance and support systems, many breast cancer patients are not.

Imagine a woman’s fear when she feels a lump in her breast but knows she cannot afford a mammogram.

Imagine the devastation when a woman is told she can’t obtain life-saving breast cancer drugs or when she can’t pay for the bus ticket to get to her treatment.

From medications to treatment, research to support, Susan G. Komen dollars bring hope to patients and inspiration to researchers. 

Komen St. Louis funding supports local organizations that deliver life-saving breast health services – including free mammograms and navigation through the health care system – to those who may not otherwise have access due to low income, lack of insurance or other barriers.

Komen-funded researchers in St. Louis are working to develop personalized breast cancer vaccines, to develop drugs that will prevent breast cancer recurrence, and to determine a treatment for triple negative breast cancer.

Komen dollars make a difference in the lives of breast cancer patients every day.

Because so many need our help, I’m asking you to help Komen St. Louis by contributing to our 2013 Annual Giving Campaign. Your donation will make a difference to women, men and families in our community facing a breast cancer diagnosis.

Our mission – to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures – has never been more important. And we can’t do this without your support. Please make a one-time or monthly donation today.

Susan G. Komen has touched nearly all of our modern approaches and treatments for breast cancer. Even my own survivorship depends on continued support of breakthrough research.

With your support, Komen St. Louis can continue to provide real-time help to those in our community facing the disease.

With your support, Komen can continue our quest in the fight against breast cancer.

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Meet Me in St. Louis, Meet Me at the Mission

As October and National Breast Cancer Awareness Month came to a close, Komen St. Louis hosted Komen President and CEO Dr. Judy Salerno on a two-day whirlwind tour. Our mission: to show Dr. Salerno first-hand the year-round impact of Susan G. Komen® and Komen St. Louis in our community.

Local Dollars Making a Local Impact

We introduced Judy to two of Komen St. Louis’ community partners, each helping women right now by providing safety-net services in underserved neighborhoods.

 Komen CEO Judy Salerno and Komen St. Louis Executive Director Helen Chesnut with the team at Betty Jean Kerr People's Health Centers

Komen CEO Judy Salerno and Komen St. Louis Executive Director Helen Chesnut with the team at Betty Jean Kerr People’s Health Centers

At Betty Jean Kerr People’s Health Centers, Komen St. Louis funding supports the People’s Sister Connection program. The program offers medically underserved and uninsured African-American women access to the quality breast health care they need, including breast health education, clinical breast exams and screening mammograms. The program staff told us about the four mammogram events they coordinated in the week leading up to our visit. They are on track to provide more than 800 mammograms to women who may not otherwise get them.

In another vulnerable area of our community, Family Care Health Centers primarily serves uninsured, low-income individuals. Komen St. Louis funding helps FCHC’s Breast Health Screening Access Project to connect women with breast health resources and patient navigation services. Mammography vans – provided through another Komen St. Louis community partner – are available for the center’s diverse population of African-American, Bosnian, Hispanic, Somali and Vietnamese women. The program staff showed us the system they’ve developed to ensure as many women as possible stay current with their breast health screenings.

A Local View on Nationally Funded Breast Cancer Research

Judy’s St. Louis tour continued with a visit with four Komen-funded scientists in their labs at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. Washington University is home to eight active Komen research grants totaling $15.1 million.

Komen Promise Grantee Dr. Matthew Ellis discusses his breast cancer research with Komen CEO Dr. Judy Salerno

Komen Promise Grantee Dr. Matthew Ellis discusses his research with Komen CEO Dr. Judy Salerno

Komen Scholar Dr. Matthew Ellis’ Komen Promise Grant is supporting a three-year research project to identify patients most at risk for late recurrence of ER+ breast cancer and to develop drugs that will prevent late recurrence.

Promise Grantee Dr. William Gillanders and his research team updated Judy on the Komen-funded, five-year project aiming to develop personalized breast cancer vaccines that harness patients’ immune systems to target unique tumor antigens.

Dr. Cynthia Ma’s Komen-funded research focuses on triple negative breast cancer. With impeccable timing, just as she was meeting with Judy, we received notification that Dr. Ma’s $1 million Komen grant was officially contracted.

Dr. Ron Bose, who has received two Komen national grants and is a Komen St. Louis Pink Tie Guy, talked with Judy about his research focused on the HER2 gene, which causes HER2-positive breast cancer. He uses cancer genome sequencing and studies of protein structure to understand how HER2 works.

With her medical background and community health experience, Judy was clearly in her element during the grantee site visits, lab tours and science-based discussions.

During her St. Louis visit, Judy also met Komen St. Louis volunteers, sponsors, and additional community partners. She shared the Komen story with a wider audience through a TV interview on KSDK NewsChannel 5 and an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In less than two days, Judy saw for herself the Komen mission at work and the work happening every day to save lives and end breast cancer.

A Survivor’s Story: Marcia Luck, Mother

When Marcia Luck thinks about her breast cancer journey, she goes back to the beginning and remembers the emotions she went through at that time.

“The first emotion I think for most anyone who hears those words – ‘breast cancer’ – is fear,” says Marcia. “Your mind is going wild and trying to think, ‘What am I going to do? What’s next?’ First is fear.”

Once Marcia was able to come to terms with her emotions, she sought her doctor’s care to determine what steps needed to be taken. However, as she explains, things began to progress rather quickly soon after she was diagnosed.

“It was like a whirlwind. First I had the mammogram done, and then a second mammogram to confirm that there was something there, and they wanted to do the biopsy. It was Labor Day weekend coming up and I had to wait until the following Tuesday to get my results, which seemed like an eternity,” she says. “Once Tuesday morning came, I thought, ‘They’ll call me first thing in the morning,’ but I didn’t hear anything.”

Marcia naturally began to worry when she did not receive the results of her biopsy. Her husband suggested that she call the doctor to find out for herself.

“I didn’t want to,” she recalls. “I wanted them to just call me and tell me everything was OK. As soon as the nurse said, ‘Yes, it is malignant,’ my mind just kind of went blank and I handed my husband the phone.”

Having the support of her husband helped Marcia get through the appointments and procedures needed to treat the cancer. She also had the support of her daughter, Stacy, during this difficult time. Marcia explained how hard it was to wait until the right time to tell Stacy about her diagnosis.

Marcia Luck (right) with her daughter and co-survivor Stacy Kingston

Marcia Luck (right) with her daughter and co-survivor Stacy Kingston

“We’re very close. That was the worst part, not being able to share it with her. But she was three-and-a-half hours away at college and I didn’t want her to worry,” says Marcia. “I didn’t want her to find out from someone else, but I didn’t want to tell her over the phone.”

After sharing the news with Stacy, Marcia felt a sense of relief. She was able to share her journey, the good and the bad, with someone who is a major part of her life. Her gratitude extends to Komen St. Louis for the support as well for the progress being made to find the cures for breast cancer.

“Komen has been great to do what they do to raise the money,” says Marcia. “They help to make breast cancer not the death sentence that it used to be with all the research that’s being done now, and there is so much out there.”

Many breast cancer patients are now in the same position that Marcia was in when she was first diagnosed. As a 16-year breast cancer survivor, she shared these words for those who may not know what to think after receiving their diagnosis:

“I’ve heard of people who feel something but they don’t want to tell anybody, they just want to ignore it. You can’t ignore it because it’s not going to go away. The most helpful thing for me was just to share it with people because the more that you share with others, you have their support, their prayers, and you’re not feeling like you’re alone. It is a scary journey to go on, but if you have the support of family and friends you’re not alone and you feel like you’re not doing it all by yourself.”

Susan G. Komen® Advances Breast Cancer Vaccine Research in St. Louis

For years, the holy grail of breast cancer research has been a vaccine that prevents the disease. Considerable progress has been made, thanks in part to Susan G. Komen® and St. Louis scientists.

In 2011, Komen awarded a $6.5 million Promise Grant to Washington University School of Medicine researchers at the Siteman Cancer Center. They’re working on vaccines aimed at both preventing the disease and preventing recurrence after treatment.

Dr. Will Gillanders and the research team working on breast cancer vaccines (photo courtesy of Robert J. Boston/Washington University School of Medicine

Dr. Will Gillanders (top right) and the research team working on breast cancer vaccines (photo courtesy of Robert J. Boston/Washington University School of Medicine

The idea behind the vaccines is to equip a person’s immune system to fight off cancerous growth, says Promise Grant co-recipient William Gillanders, MD, vice chair for research at Washington University School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery.

“In the last decade we’ve made a huge amount of progress towards that goal,” he says. “We have a much better understanding of the immune system, how and why vaccines work and when it would be most appropriate to use them.”

Gillanders’ fellow Promise Grant recipients are Ted Hansen, PhD, a professor of pathology and immunology and of genetics, and Elaine Mardis, co-director of The Genome Institute and professor of genetics.

A prevention vaccine could be a decade or more away, Gillanders said. Meanwhile, a clinical trial has begun on a vaccine that would prevent recurrence in patients who have been treated.

The vaccine targets mammaglobin-A, a protein initially discovered at Washington University and found in 80 percent of breast tumors. Called a Phase I clinical trial, it is meant to determine if the treatment is safe; however, researchers are measuring patients’ immune response to the vaccine.

“None of the them have had significant toxicities to date,” Gillanders says. “We’ve been able to detect evidence of an immune response. We would like to move now to a Phase II clinical trial, where we can have a more rigorous evaluation of the biologic response.”

Many patients with breast cancer receive endocrine therapy before surgery, typically for about four months, to shrink tumors and to make surgery safer and more effective. Gillanders hopes that one day the anti-recurrence vaccine may be given at this time, as well.

Dr. William Gillanders, Komen Promise Grant recipient (photo courtesy of Robert J. Boston/Washington University School of Medicine)

Dr. William Gillanders, Komen Promise Grant recipient (photo courtesy of Robert J. Boston/Washington University School of Medicine)

Another vaccine in development involves genome sequencing. That is, decoding the DNA of patients and identifying the differences between normal cells and cancer cells. After sequencing the cells, researchers would design a personalized vaccine for each patient using her own immune system to destroy the cancer cells, either to treat an existing tumor or to prevent recurrence. The patient would receive the vaccination after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Eventually, a woman who is identified as being at high risk for developing breast cancer could be a potential vaccine candidate too. That could be 10 years away, but it’s what the team is striving for.

“We’re not quite there yet, but certainly cancer prevention is one of the long-term goals of developing a vaccine,” Gillanders says.