My father lost his mother in a car crash when he was 17 years old. Breast cancer therapy had made her chest tender, and the seat belt that might have saved her life hurt her when she wore it—so she didn’t. Someone running from the police crashed into their car on the highway. My father was driving. My grandmother died instantly.
Naturally, this was traumatic for my dad. I have grown up in a household that teaches: “Cars can kill.” “Do not smoke.” “Cancer can happen to any of us.” I do something for breast cancer awareness month (October) almost every year; it’s an important public health concern and the awareness campaigns have been proven to get more women in to get mammograms and treatment. The research to find a “cure” has been incredibly slow and contentious, and it’s about to get a whole lot more complicated.
When I was 17, Gardasil—the HPV vaccine—became the new vaccine of choice for young women. I was getting ready for college, so you better believe that, as a member of the target demographic, my doctor was pushing hard for me to get it—young women certainly can’t be trusted to have safe sex, after all. But after doing my own research, I came to the conclusion that the vaccine wasn’t researched in the long-term well enough to justify putting into my body, especially as someone with a genetic disorder that can cause blood clots. My doctor was horrified, my mother was supportive, and my friends were curious more than anything else.
Since then, Merck, the company that produces the vaccine, has been sued by a number of individuals who claim to have had serious adverse reactions to Gardasil. The company has settled most if not all of them, shelling out $6 million in total (see the filing and cases here).
And I somehow, remarkably, still have a clear pap test.
Now, researchers are using a similar approach to create the breast cancer vaccine—they’re trying to find a “target,” or a biological agent, that might cause breast cancer, just like some HPV types cause some kinds of cervical cancer. The military is looking for women to do clinical testing for a breast cancer vaccine that would prevent the recurrence of breast cancer in patients who have already been diagnosed. The Artemis Project, begun by the National Breast Cancer Coalition, is looking for targets as well. One project would target HMTV, or human mammary tumor virus, which is found in 40% of breast cancer tumors. Note that there’s only a rough correlation between the two; the researchers do not know whether HMTV is causal yet, and they have more questions than answers at this point.
Since the research’s inception, it has garnered a ton of support. The Avon Foundation has donated $6 million in related research. The Susan G. Komen foundation has donated another million. The Cleveland Clinic has started their own research and are entering Phase 1 testing in addition to the military’s research. Should it be effective, this kind of research would revolutionize the lives of the unfortunate one in eight women who gets breast cancer in her lifetime.
But I, for one, am nervous about this drug. And no—I didn’t grow up in a family that didn’t believe in vaccines. I declined Gardasil for my specific health problems. I am a skeptic, but, I like to think, a reasoned one.
A breast cancer vaccine would be revolutionary, but I fear that it may suffer the same problems Gardasil had: it was rushed to market and didn’t have complete product warnings because buzz about a cervical cancer vaccine spelled m-o-n-e-y. Breast cancer awareness has a huge backing, and most young women today grow up with a fear that breast cancer may be a reality in the future. So I’m concerned, should a vaccine come to fruition, it will suffer the same pitfalls. The research team that gets the drug approved first will probably have half the population vying for the shot. They will make unimaginable sums of cash. The Artemis Project already has a countdown clock until 2020, their deadline “to know how to end breast cancer by January 1, 2020.”
It’s a good thing science works on a deadline.
As someone who has grown up knowing the realities of breast cancer and who is at risk, I would love nothing more than an effective vaccine to get rid of this terrible illness. However, as someone who has also taken her health seriously and does her research, I will not hold my breath for this drug. When it is released, perhaps in 10 years, I am telling you now that breast cancer awareness advocates are going to go into a frenzy and promote the hell out of this vaccine. Take your time. Do your research. There is no such thing as a miracle drug.