On the fourth Monday in December, Tahoma was at the tail end of radiation treatments. Up in Philadelphia, Deborah hiked over to her gym, settled into the recumbent bicycle, and read the local paper, as usual, browsing until she reached this headline, buried in the health and science section of The Philadelphia Inquirer: TREATMENT SHOWS PROMISE IN TWO FORMS OF BRAIN CANCER.
Here was an experimental protocol, the only one of its kind in the world, at Drexel University's College of Medicine, a facility 20 minutes away from where she was pedaling. At Drexel radioactive iodine was attached to antibody extracts produced in mice and injected into patients. The antibodies had a particular affinity for tumor cells and so acted as an escort service, keeping the highly charged radiation from traveling to healthy cells in the body and brain. Fewer than 11,000 people are diagnosed with these types of cancer, but those who had undergone the MAb425 treatment were showing impressive results.
For an instant, Deborah felt hope. But then reason won out. "I thought, Oh, surely Tahoma knows about this," Deborah remembers. "She has been visiting brain tumor sites on the Internet, she has a great group of doctors—it would be impossible that she doesn't know." Also, what were the chances Tahoma had the "right" cancer?
Deborah finished biking, threw the paper in the trash, and headed for the showers. On her way out of the locker room, she reconsidered. She fished the paper from the trash, and when she got home, she checked an old e-mail to see what cancer Tahoma had. Ping. It was astrocytoma with anaplastic foci, one of the two in the study.
That night Deborah sent her daily e-mail to Tahoma, mentioning the article almost in passing. "I'm sure you know about this MAb drug," Deborah wrote.
"No," Tahoma answered.
The next day, Christmas Eve, Tahoma called Drexel. The clinic had shut down for the holidays, but a kind receptionist encouraged her to call back after the New Year.
Tahoma waited two weeks—tick, tick, tick—and called. Jackie Emrich, PhD, the lead author of the study's report, picked up the phone. She and Tahoma had a long talk, which led to good and bad news. Yes, Tahoma could be treated with MAb425, but each dose took an hour and a half of lab time to make, and the lab was getting calls from desperate people all over the world. Tahoma would be number 64 on the waiting list—not a reassuring position when your life expectancy is about the same number of days. On the other hand, Tahoma was thrilled that there was a list to be on. She also realized she needed time to recuperate from her weeks of radiation before trying something else.
You can tell a lot about Tahoma by her mottoes: "Try to understand" and "Keep moving." She doesn't own a lot of stuff, she doesn't earn a lot of money—she finds richness in canoeing and fishing and providing healthcare to people who need it even if they can't pay for it. Good for the spirit; not so good for the bank balance. And as anyone who's been around cancer knows, this disease is not a cheap date.
What Tahoma does have a wealth of, however, is some seriously good luck. "I could fall in shit and find a diamond," she would tell Deborah. Tahoma intended to hit the top of Drexel's waiting list, and she called Deborah to ask if she could stay with her in Philadelphia during the two-week treatment. "Hmm," Deborah thought. She couldn't be happier about the prospect of the trip, but her one-bedroom apartment doubled as her office, and Tahoma couldn't exactly settle into the futon couch that served as the patients' chair. Deborah offered to underwrite a hotel stay as a sort of guest room away from home.
We Hear You!