One Person Can Change the World: I'm Living Proof!
I was just a small child when I first recall hearing my teachers, parents, and elders assuring me that "I could change the world." I couldn't comprehend what they were talking about because even Mother Teresa was not able to feed, clothe, and house all the orphans in the world. The whole principle seemed like such an unrealistic goal that even as an invincible adolescent, the thought of it left me feeling more inadequate than motivated.
Back when I was 38 years old with 3 small children, I discovered a pea-size lump in my breast. The doctor told me one day later, "Angelle, not only is it cancer, but you have the most aggressive kind, and you only have a 34% chance of surviving 7 years." Two weeks later, Hurricane Katrina hit my hometown, and it was all I could stand... actually I couldn't. How could the winds of change come upon us so quickly? How could we survive this storm?
I went into treatments full throttle, in battle mode. Telling a mother that she's not going to be around to raise her babies is like unleashing a lioness protecting her cubs from hyenas. There was no stopping my will. I was determined to become a doctor of breast cancer, and I was going to fight as hard as I could to just try to live longer. If it didn't work out, well... at least I would know that I did everything I could, and was going to do it gracefully, so that my children would at least remember me well.
The cruelest thing about treatment is that you have to wait years after completion to know if it actually worked. If you don't know what patience is in the midst of fear and sorrow, you have to instantly learn it. My oncologist said that I would start with the usual 4 rounds of Cytoxin and Adriamycin, and finish with 4 rounds of Taxol. About four months into it, he told me what's coming next... a two year forced marriage with a fairly new IV drug called Herceptin. He explained further that it was a mere smidgin of hope for the aggressive form of cancer that 1 in 4 women had. He said, "You have an overexpression of a protein in your tumor that causes cells to divide rapidly. This drug (Herceptin) for Her2 + patients has shown promise in the trials, but it hasn't been approved long enough to understand the long-term survival rates. I don't want to get your hopes up, but remember, it is your ray of hope."
Holding on to Hope
I tried to keep a positive outlook, but it was difficult schlepping through the parking lot of the cancer center alone every three weeks for two additional years to get a chemo drug that may not even work. The support groups had long waned, and my friends and family were busy putting their lives back together after the storm. My chemo buddies were all done with their treatments and were back to feeling better, so it was a pretty lonely time. I was so busy feeling sorry for myself, that I didn't realize the gift I was receiving. It would be another year after the completion of the Herceptin treatments before I found out that my teachings as a child might've been correct. I had to wait for proof that I was being cured, but my full head of hair had returned, and I was silently wishing.
A Prophetic Visit
Like most suffering, good things usually come out of tragedies, even though we may not be able to see it at the time. Louisiana has been experiencing a regrowth like never before post-Katrina. One of the nicest additions was our new title of "Hollywood South." We had become the number one film location outside of Los Angeles.
My good friend was a long-time location scout, and he regularly asked if he could show my home to producers because it fit the imagery of a scenic, southern waterway. So when this producer came to my door, I kindly showed him the grounds in my usual manner. When he told me the site wasn't right for this movie, I smiled and asked, "What's the movie about anyway?"
He said, "Oh you wouldn't know it. It's about a man who invented a drug that cured breast cancer."
I said, "You mean... Herceptin?"
He proclaimed, "Oh my, how do you know the name of the drug?"
I said, "Because I wouldn't be here talking to you if it wasn't for that drug."
The Gift of Knowing
The producer saw my face light up when I spoke about the greatest gift of my life: the gift of knowing that I might, indeed, live! He said, "We are all working on this film, mostly as volunteers because we believe in this story, and we have never met any real Herceptin survivors yet. You have no idea what this man went through to save your life. You have to read his story. Harry Connick, Jr. is playing the doctor, Dr. Dennis Slamon. Slamon is a real hero, and he will be here during the filming. You have to come to the set and meet him when we come back to shoot. Here's the script. Read it and I promise I will give you a call!" He gave me the actual script and drove away.
The Couch of Truth
A rush of joyful anxiety came over me as I plopped on my couch and opened the pages of the script, where I stayed for three hours. It read like my own fairy tale, and I was the princess caught in the tower. I found myself rooting for this man to "Never give up! Keep going. Don't quit."
Here was a brilliant researcher, yet, simple man, who dedicated his life to making his invention, his out-of-the-box thinking, his life's work, Herceptin, available to women who needed it so desperately.
As I read on, I couldn't believe that I was in high school when he first pitched the idea for this new way of approaching cancer. I was getting married when it went to Phase I trials. I was having a baby during Phase II and III, and all the while he was battling insurmountable forces to save my life. He put his family second, and toiled basically out of a closet at UCLA Research Center with an English major research assistant. He told her, "If we can get this drug approved, we can fill the Rose Bowl with the number of women it will save every two years."
I couldn't fathom this story. It described the numerous battles he had convincing Genentec executives to risk everything to go along with this concept. Chemo drugs kill cells, thus killing good cells too, and cause tremendous side effects. Herceptin instead binds to the protein in the tumor that causes cells to divide and essentially blocks the protein so that the action stops.
As I read through the pages, I understood that it was truly a miracle that Herceptin came to be, and it was available to me when I was ready for it. I was sitting there reading the beautiful story of one man's fifteen year struggle that ended with me and millions of other women being cured of our type of cancer. After finishing the story, I instantly knew that I was going to live. I didn't have to wait seven years to wait for some scientific truth. I knew! More importantly, I also knew for sure that one man could change the world, and I knew I was the lucky recipient of his steadfastness and his genius.
The Set of the Lifetime Television Movie: Living Proof
So seven months came and went, and one day I got an unexpected phone call from Bob the producer. He said, "Angelle, I know I said I was going to give you a call to meet Dr. Slamon and tomorrow is his last day here. Can you come to the stadium in the morning so you can meet him?"
Of course I could. I was so excited to finally hug him and thank him for saving my life. He was not just the man who gave my kids their mother longer, but he was also a symbol for all that is good in this world. He materialized the unattainable truth from my childhood, that each of our lives are important, and we can make a difference in the world.
I rushed to the set that morning, but when I got there, he was gone. They said he had to catch an earlier flight because something had come up. Bob apologized to me profusely, but also informed me that if willing, I was going to be in the final scene of the movie. He said, "Harry Connick, Jr. is going to be jogging through the stadium because Dr. Slamon was a runner. It's a fantasy scene, he said. It's the end of the movie. As Harry runs through the Rose Bowl, the stadium is going to start to fill with women who are going to be popping up, because he saved their lives. We want you to be the first women to pop up."
I was a little sad I didn't get to meet my new hero, but mostly dumbfounded by the reality that I was truly in the crowd in real life. Yea, it was cool to spend some time with Harry Connick, Jr. during the shoot, and I was honored to be invited to be in the movie, not because I was going to be on camera for two seconds, but mostly because I realized on the couch back home that I was in that number of 40,000 women a year who benefited from Herceptin. I had been saved by one man who simply tried to make a difference to others.
So today in the cancer world, they call drugs such as Herceptin "targeted therapies." The cancer research world has changed greatly since the creation of this drug, and great minds have taken Dr. Slamon's lead and applied it to other forms of cancer. Researchers have been imagining even more ways to target new growth factors, along with the familiar methods of killing cells through chemotherapy. Everyone knows someone, who knows someone, with cancer. It is a hard thing to go through, or watch someone you love go through, but knowing there are folks out there sacrificing their own lives to save others brings me great joy. If he had given up on his dream anywhere along the way, I wouldn't be here now, and maybe I can take a lesson from Dr. Slamon because... maybe Mother Teresa did have an impact after all; she may not have been able to save every orphan, but she showed the world a way that each of us can help just one.
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
Living Proof is a Lifetime Television Movie
P.S. - I am remiss not to give enormous props to Mrs. Lilly Tarticoff. Without her, the money that Dr. Slamon needed to continue the research for Herceptin would never have come to be. Her passion, love, and social connetions with Revlon's Ronald Perelman, who agreed to fund the research, made it all possible. There are many philanthropist who give back with great love who have no idea how many lives they are truly touching. There is enough story there for another very long blog. Thank you to them as well with all my heart!
Founder/VP Chemo Beanies.com