The final pink-out
By Trent Loos
If you somehow managed to miss the obviously pinked-out everything from yogurt cups to NASCAR vehicles, October is officially Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As a person whose mother, sister, aunt and uncle have all survived breast cancer, the "pink" is something I am keenly aware of.
Several years ago I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Kenneth Cowan of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Eppley Institute for Cancer Research. His research focuses primarily on breast cancer and in a recent edition of Rural Route, we discussed the changes that have taken place in the field since he got his start.
The Eppley Institute for Cancer Research was started in 1960 through the generous donation of the Eugene Eppley Foundation in Omaha, Neb. It was one of the first interdisciplinary cancer research institutes in the country. In 1971, the federal government passed the "National Cancer Act," which provided federal funding for this cancer research through the use of National Institute of Health funds distributed by the National Cancer Institute. Eppley was recognized as a Regional Cancer Center of Excellence in 1984 and has maintained that status ever since.
To understand the advancements in breast cancer research, it is important to know that 200,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease this year. This annual trend has actually decreased over the past 10 years. In the 1970s, the survival rate was only about 75 percent. Now, it is over 95 percent but researchers are working for even better odds. There are over 12 million cancer survivors in the United States and the majority of those are breast cancer survivors.
In the 1990's, two genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, were identified as a part of the 10-year, $3 billion Human Genome Project. This project was a combined effort by researchers around the world to sequence the 25,000 strand human genome. From that key research, these two genes were identified as being markers for breast cancer and responsible for about 10 percent of all breast cancer cases. Ongoing research is working to determine other genes responsible for the disease. A person with a mutation of one of those two genes increases their likelihood of developing breast cancer from one in eight to about 60 percent. Therefore, knowing the risk may help provide earlier detection and better treatment.
Cowan stated that a person diagnosed with breast cancer 20 to 30 years ago received the exact same chemotherapy cocktails and disease treatment as every other diagnosed patient. Thanks to the ability of doctors to sequence each patient's DNA, they can now prescribe treatments that are individually tailored to meet the needs of the patient based on the genes that have mutated to cause the cancer. This personalized treatment has gone a long way in helping to increase the survival rate of those diagnosed with breast cancer.
Thanks to our rapid transfer of information, through the knowledge gained at the Eppley Institute for Cancer Research and other institutions, scientists and doctors are now moving forward at a very rapid pace in research relating to both prevention and treatment of breast cancer. While it once took months to share research data in printed journals, it now takes much less time thanks to the internet.
Genetics plays a key role in cancer but environment can play a role as well. Healthy individuals with good eating and exercise habits tend to be less likely to be diagnosed with cancer. Since cancer is a mutation of an already-existing gene that causes it to continue dividing and growing, there are environmental factors that may influence your body's ability to repair cells that have been damaged by, for example, excess sunlight. When the cells are properly repaired, they may become malignant. Environmental stress may prevent the proper repair of cells.
Research to find a cure for cancer is very expensive. While federal grant funds are certainly instrumental in keeping the research going, private support can also be a key to solving the mysteries of this disease. Cowan's research has been helped greatly by the support of the Nebraska Cattlemen's Ball. The Ball was started as a way to showcase the Nebraska beef industry and our rural lifestyle, while supporting a very important cause. Since its inception in 1998, the Ball has donated nearly $10 million dollars to the Eppley Institute. It is a function that happens through the hard work and dedication of thousands of volunteers and is certainly a highlight of each summer in Nebraska.
Cowan doesn't seem to be satisfied with a 95 percent survival rate for breast cancer and as a father of three daughters in a family with a history of breast cancer, my pink hat is off to him and his colleagues as they continue to battle this disease. So proudly wear pink all year and continue to support the great work done by researchers like Dr. Cowan so we can have one final PINK-OUT and get rid of breast cancer once and for all.
Editor's note: Trent Loos is a sixth generation United States farmer, host of the daily radio show, Loos Tales, and founder of Faces of Agriculture, a non-profit organization putting the human element back into the production of food. Get more information at www.FacesOfAg.com, or email Trent at firstname.lastname@example.org.