How amazing would it be to end breast cancer by 2020? Is it possible? How far are we from finding the cure(s)? These were some of the questions I had going into a five-day intensive training course through the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBBC) called the Project LEAD® Institute in July 2012.
The graduates of Project LEAD are armed to become leaders in the research advocacy world. They go on to do things like work with scientists on clinical trials, review grant proposals and explain the significance of recent research to their local communities. Completing the program was one of the hardest, most challenging and rewarding things I’ve done in my life – which includes treatment for stage-3 breast cancer, getting my Master’s degree and parenting (my other full-time job). It had been at least 13 years since I’d stepped inside a classroom.
The first two days we reviewed basic science education, which completely consumed and overwhelmed my brain. Some of it came back to me, at times in my sleep, “chromosomes, nucleus, peptides, gene factors …” But some of the information was brand new and mind-blowing. There are so many things that have to happen at the cellular level to create the being we know as human. It only takes one tiny thing to go wrong, be out of order or just located in the wrong place, for a cancer to form and grow. This concept still blows me away. The way the cells talk to each other and have very specialized jobs is incredibly complex. It completely consumed me at the beginning of the week.
The third day was focused on clinical trials, which is one of the areas I’m most interested in. I never realized how long it requires, how many people, dollars and years it takes, to evolve from an idea to a clinical trial setting. It’s a miracle we have as many going on as we do. We are very close to having vaccines for certain types of cancers and that fills me with more hope than words can describe. Targeted therapies are increasing and the more we learn about the many kinds of breast cancer that exist, the easier it will be to treat or even prevent them with promising immunotherapy.
The final days were spent learning all about NBCC and how much it’s accomplished over the years as a coalition. The fact that it fought, and won, the right to have laypeople (like me) sitting across the table from scientists to discuss the latest research or grants is quite an achievement of the diverse group of people and organizations that comprise the NBCC. They have invested generously in training advocates like me to become involved at every level and to stay connected with continuous learning and networking opportunities.
Everyone is assigned a mentor and you work within a study group diving deeper into topics and ensuring everyone understands the material to the best of their ability. This was invaluable and these relationships will continue to fuel the work I do on both the local and national levels.
This was something I wanted to do for myself both personally and professionally. As a YSC staff member this background will strengthen my understanding of breast cancer science, research and advocacy. I feel honored to have been chosen and received a scholarship to attend so I can have this knowledge under my belt as I work with young survivors and volunteers.
I do have another reason and it’s purely a selfish one: to end breast cancer as a gift to my daughter on her 21st birthday. As it stands she will begin annual screening at age 24 (10 years before my diagnosis at age 34). She is now 13 years old and has watched this disease take at least 30 young women with breast cancer I have known personally over a span of eight years. Some were and are my best friends, and women whom I consider family. My daughter has endured more than her share of heartache and has had to grow up fast in many ways, as I did when I lost my mom to a brain tumor when I was a child. She deserves to have a future in a world without breast cancer.
Can this be accomplished in the next eight years? That is a question that remains to be seen, but I for one, want to be on the front lines doing whatever I can to make that happen. Thank you NBCC and Project LEAD for giving me my wings. Life is what you make of it – I intend to make mine count.