What If a Simple Test Could Detect Breast Cancer Earlier?
By Sheryl McAlister, a writer based in South Carolina
This is a story about cancer, a dog named Sherlock and a slip of a woman named Martha Kaley, who fights for a cause we can all believe in. Kaley’s powerful journey with breast cancer is not quite like any I have ever heard about.
Kaley was in her late ‘40s when she was wrestling with her Chocolate Lab Sherlock. As labs are wont to do, Sherlock was being quite playful and scratched Kaley, forming a straight-line bruise that stopped at the top of a lump on her breast. Her doctor, after removing the benign tumor, decided to take a deeper look and discovered a malignant mass deep inside the woman’s breast tissue that had not been found during her annual exam. If not for Sherlock, she is certain she would not have survived.
What if a simple test could have predicted the existence of her cancer long before the doctor started poking around? What if Sherlock had scratched the other breast instead?
Certainly, we all have causes we support. Usually these are causes that have impacted our lives in some way. For me, those are Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis and cancer – both pancreatic and breast. I lost my Dad to pancreatic cancer. My sister is a 7-year survivor of breast cancer, and it is an everyday fight for her to stay one step ahead.
What if her cancer had been detected earlier? Like Kaley, my sister Marsi did everything right. She was in exceptional shape, had played on the all-star level as a Division 1 college basketball player. She exercised and ate organic before it was de rigueur. Then one year she skipped her mammogram. She was busy at work, was busy as a single parent. But that one decision cost her mightily. And she nearly died.
What if a simple blood test could have forecast the breast cancer that had likely invaded her body long before it was detected by a self-exam and an image? What if?
There’s a reason breast cancer survivors call themselves warriors in pink. This disease is not for sissies. My sister, like others, fights the ravages of this dreadful disease every single day. An estrogen patch was the likely culprit in her case. The deep scars on her back and chest are the tell-tale signs that she has waged war, was wounded and came back to fight another day. The damage caused by lymphedema continues to take its toll on her right arm and shoulder. Yet, as a single mother, she raises her 14-year-old twins and works full-time as a high school guidance counselor.
Kaley also lived to see another day and founded earlier.org, based in Greensboro, NC. Its sole mission is to find a way for earlier detection. Earlier detection could save lives. Earlier detection could prevent a long, painful fight through treatment and possible recurrence. But according to Kaley, new research is hard to come by. Researchers have told her it’s too difficult a task. Her response: “This is ridiculous. We have to move forward.” Kaley is quick to point out the extraordinary work of those in search of a cure. But she still believes we need to do more to find a better way to detect sooner.
She doesn’t believe that we have to prove anyone else wrong in this fight against breast cancer to try something new. For her, this mission is not a zero-sum game. “We have to find a better method than imaging,” she said. “We need to do something, because the old stuff doesn’t work anymore.”
This pint-sized woman with groovy glasses and cool jewelry is a force of nature. She founded earlier.org in the mid ‘90s with a mission to identify a biological test to detect cancer before a tumor is ever formed. Little overhead is needed to run the organization when a woman of Kaley’s passion and spunk is leading the way. She is joined by an army of volunteers and a large group of generous supporters who champion the cause. Because this disease does not discriminate against gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.
Earlier.org uses the ubiquitous pink ribbon to remain steadfast in the commitment to raise awareness for breast cancer. But the group decided to use an inverted version of the ribbon as a means to begin a conversation. It was designed that way to encourage people to look at things in a different way. The young woman who came up with the idea was involved in the early years of the organization. A young advertising account manager, she had been – at the age of 26 – diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. She died at 31.
What if this work had been started when she was a little girl? Might it have made a difference?
Consider that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. And in 2018, more than 250,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed. Given that some breast cancers can grow in the body for 5 to 8 years before detection, that number could be considerably higher.
According to its website, earlier.org has awarded more than $4 million to fund seed grants in the specific area of finding a biological test to detect breast cancer in its earliest stage. But research doesn’t come cheap. And Kaley is concerned about losing researchers to more lucrative professional fields.
We are in the middle of a crisis, and breast cancer is not stopping its assault. Please support the work of this organization. Share its story with your friends. Donate to the cause. Consider earlier.org when you host an event or seek a philanthropic partner. We owe it to ourselves, our daughters and sons, nieces and nephews to help Kaley help all of us.
The mission of earlier.org gives me hope that this insidious disease might be stopped before it ruins more lives. But Kaley knows that “hope alone is not a strategy.”
“This is a project, not an ongoing organization,” she said. “A biomarker will be found and a test to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages will be created. No previous generation has had the opportunity to make an impact of this magnitude on breast cancer.”
You are our hope, Martha Kaley. Fight hard.
Copyright 2018. Sheryl McAlister.
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