When Karen Neely 35, An African-American corporate defense lawyer in Atlanta, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in June of last year, she quickly discovered that tamoxifen, Herceptin, and other targeted drugs would not be part of her treatment. Neely's cancer was caught early, and after four cycles of chemotherapy followed by a lumpectomy and radiation, she is cancer-free. But she knows that her disease is more likely to return after two years than hormone-driven cancers. "I do a lot of praying," says Neely, who started Triple Pink, a nonprofit organization devoted to educating and raising research funds for her kind of cancer.
Lori Booker and Angel Jacobs weren't as lucky. Diagnosed with advanced tumors that had spread to their lymph nodes, they both underwent mastectomies. Angel is being treated experimentally with specific chemotherapy drugs that kill off connections between the tumors and their blood vessels. She is also participating in Olopade's $9.7 million study at the University of Chicago, funded by the National Institutes of Health, in which researchers are examining various medical and social factors affecting triple negative women both in Nigeria and Chicago. Other researchers are looking for clues to help doctors recognize the disease long before the tumors develop with the goal of finding an effective treatment.
In the meantime, Olopade wants women to know that a diagnosis of triple negative cancer is "not a death sentence. It's aggressive but can be treated," she says. "The earlier the detection, the better." Most of the current general screening guidelines—including an annual mammogram beginning at age 40—are primarily drawn from data based on Caucasians, according to Olopade. That's clearly too late for some women. "If you're at risk," she says, "you don't want to wait until you're 40 to be screened."
As for Lori and Angel, they have their good days and bad days. In Lori's case, she went through a particularly difficult patch when she and her boyfriend broke up and her beloved cat died. Through her tears, she asks: "Is there something I did to get this type of cancer? Is it the food I ate? Something in the water? Stress from my job? What's really going on here?"
Researchers are racing to find out. The answers, they say, could be here in another five years.
Mary A. Fischer is the author of the memoir Stealing Love (Harmony).