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What's The Cure In The Race Against Breast Cancer?

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Tracy Grant was just 39 when she got the diagnosis.

"They asked me to stay a little bit longer because they saw something a little weird," she remembers. "In my mind I was saying, ... 'Here we go, this doesn't look good.' "

It was breast cancer. As devastating as the news was, it wasn't a surprise. Her mother, Catherine Grant, was diagnosed at age 51.

Breast cancer runs in the family. Three of Catherine's sisters also had it. They have all survived, but that's three generations of Grant women, including Tracy. Catherine says the whole family works to try to break that pattern.

"We do the walks, we give. We're just waiting, hopefully that something will come," she says. "Sometimes, I hear people say, 'But there's so much money that's given all the time, why can't they find a cure?' "

Treatment Vs. Prevention

The idea of a cure means different things to different people, says Dr. Barron Lerner, an internist and medical historian at Columbia University. He's written a book called The Breast Cancer Wars.

"There's certainly the individual cure of a patient. So someone who gets the disease, gets treated successfully and is cured," he says, "and then there's the larger issue of eradication of a disease."

In the scientific community, Lerner says, there are two main approaches to "curing" breast cancer: One is creating a vaccine to prevent the disease, and the other is eliminating toxins in the environment that are likely to cause the cancer.

Medical advances have saved more lives over time, he says, but there hasn't been much progress in preventing the cancer to begin with. He says the number of new cases has stayed about the same "for many, many decades."

Eradication of breast cancer has not been the focus, Lerner says.

"We've been focusing on finding it and curing it, so that's why the rates of the disease haven't changed but the death rate has gone down," he says.

Progress Between Generations

That focus on finding and treating breast cancer has benefited women like Tracy, who is now 48 years old. Her cancer was caught early, and she never had to endure some of the most painful treatments that older generations of her family did.

"I feel tremendously blessed because I had these matriarchs before me," she says. "I watched them go through such a difficult time."

"I was prepared, and I had a double mastectomy, which is nothing to sneeze at, but I did not have to go through [chemotherapy] or any medication," she says. "I was very, very lucky."

Tracy's mom, Catherine, says when her sister had cancer, she had chemotherapy for about a year.

"What they did then, they would take you off of it for a while, then put you back on it. Whereas now, they only give you as much as you can take," she says, "which is good because chemo is the worst. I think the chemo is worse than having the cancer."

More Than Survivors

Catherine, a two-time cancer survivor, looks healthy and beautiful today at age 74. She says that while the disease is part of her family's history, it doesn't define them.

"When we have family gatherings the breast cancer never comes up," she says. "As long as everyone is healthy, and there's no problems."

They might talk about who has a cold, but not breast cancer.

"We never have conversations about breast cancer, because we've all just adjusted to living with it," she says. "We've moved on."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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