clock menu more-arrow no yes

Science is why my cancer diagnosis isn't a death sentence. Today I march for science.

Science saves lives.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

I’ve been thinking frequently this month about Henrietta, my paternal grandmother. I try to imagine what it felt like to be an American Jew in the mid-1940s, with news coming in about what happened to one’s counterparts in Europe. Henrietta and all but one of my grandparents were born in the United States. But in 1945, at the age of 36, my father’s mother died anyway: of breast cancer. And one by one, her sisters all died of the same disease.

I wonder about that as well. What — if any — treatment did they receive? What killed them: the cancer and its progression? Or the treatment? The times, which brought death sentences to so many people like them?

Henrietta’s daughter — my aunt — and Henrietta’s sister’s daughters all lived well into old age. Most of them lived “cancer-free.” One of them, my father’s cousin Jeanine, did get breast cancer. So did my mother. Her diagnosis came in 2009, just after my step-father died. It hit me and my sisters particularly hard, increasing our sense of the risk of cancer now from both sides of the family. Mom heard the news within days of my return home to Brooklyn after sitting shiva with her in Chicago.

But thanks to advances in science, treatments for breast cancer have improved a great deal. The research of Eugene DeSombre, a biochemist, became part of the reason I did not lose my own mother, as my father had 64 years earlier. And it’s part of the reason I urge you to march for science this Saturday, as well as study science, donate to science, and educate everyone you know about it.

DeSombre and his colleagues investigated the connections between the hormone estrogen and breast cancer. Their discovery of the mechanism by which estrogen promotes the growth of some tumors helped lead to one of the treatments that have kept my mother and my cousin Jeanine, as well as many, many other women who had cancer, from dying of it and from contracting it again.

I grew up into an awareness not just that I would never know my biological paternal grandmother, but that her death and her absence ever since caused my father a great deal of harm, not to mention counseling fees. An astute psychologist would note its ongoing impact on me, my sisters, our cousins, and even our children. Perhaps it’s obvious that like many people with breasts, I also grew up with an everyday conscious as well as unconscious fear of breast cancer.

But as my 20s gave way to my 30s and then, in my 40s, as menopause approached, some of that fear eased. I noted that Henrietta and her sisters had daughters who were living into their 70s and that breast cancer had not emerged in my generation. I did not know how old my grandmother was when she died, but assumed from the young age of her children at the time, that she had likely not reached her 40s. Yet all of her granddaughters did.

And this granddaughter found a way to dedicate myself to improving the pipeline to schools and professions promoting the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Science has come a long way

As I approached the end of my 40s, that decade Henrietta never reached, working with the help of many friends old and new, I founded the nonprofit I had dreamed up years beforehand. Math4Science Inc. is devoted to improving math education in service of science for students of all ages and backgrounds.

We are building a math curriculum out of interviews with STEM professionals: scientists, computer technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. Knowing about the work these people do and solving math problems connected to that work inspires and prepares students to enter STEM fields. Just as the scientists who discovered ways to help women survive breast cancer were once students, the elementary, middle, and high school math students of today will make the advances in science, tech, and engineering that we so desperately need.

Building Math4Science led me to interview Gene DeSombre, the biochemist of whose work I had been nearly completely ignorant while growing up with his daughter in Chicago’s Hyde Park, home of the University of Chicago. When I spoke with him, I did not realize that my mother had taken medication developed out of his research findings.

I also interviewed Andrew Vickers, a biostatistician whose son went to school with my daughter in Brooklyn. Vickers researches cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, or MSKCC, both its causes and its treatment.

Most surgeons don’t have time to track their patients’ progress after surgery and may not have the math skills to analyze the patterns in that progress constructively. Vickers and his colleagues do that for them, determining which surgeries and other treatments have the most beneficial results. Doctors at MSKCC use the conclusions that Vickers’s biostatistics team draws to improve cancer treatments and their patients’ lives.

Then the diagnosis came

I turned 50 last summer. Around eight months later, I felt a lump in my breast. One doctor’s visit, a barrage of mammogram images, a sonogram, and a biopsy later, all but the first at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, I turned out to be the first of my generation in my family to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

I could write at length about the past few weeks: about living to face one of my greatest, longest-lived fears; about the power of the care of friends and family; about the dizzying mind-body connection and the havoc it wreaks; about how slowly time passes as one awaits surgery.

The lump awaiting removal makes me feel closer to the grandmother I never met, feeling her anguish and my father’s at a life cut short. The two of us had an imaginary laugh this morning, though, as I recalled the way my grandfather used to shout for his second wife from their cigar smoke-filled den. The Henrietta in my head raised an eyebrow: Not every moment she missed out on was as sweet as the kids, grandchildren, and great-grandkids she would never know.

My own children are at the threshold of adulthood, but that does not exempt them from needing a mom. And I desperately want to spend time with my own grandchildren one day. Thank goodness science has progressed.

The cancer my mother had eight years ago was similar to the one I have now. Like hers, mine is estrogen-receptive: blocking estrogen from my system should help cure me. As I mentioned, Mom is cancer-free now and able to spend time with her grandchildren, nearly all of whom she just hosted at her annual Passover Seder. Thank you, biochemist Eugene DeSombre and all of your colleagues past, present, and future.

My own lump will be removed as part of an outpatient surgery at MSKCC on Tuesday. The matter-of-fact, “I’ve got this and frankly it’s quite routine” attitude of the surgeon who will do the lumpectomy, as well as the kindness of the entire staff at the hospital, has helped me plow through fields of fear sown by my family history.

The survival rate of those diagnosed with breast cancer has increased so much since my grandmother’s diagnosis. In the past 60 years, the rate of survival for 10 years after treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center has tripled. Thank you, biostatistician Andrew Vickers and all of your colleagues past, present, and future.

And if my daughter or my future grandchildren or perhaps you, your friends, your children, or your grandchildren find lumps in their breasts that prove to be cancer, even better science, technology, engineering, and math may save their lives. Perhaps they will then go on to become scientists like DeSombre, Vickers, or Derek West.

Right now, bioengineer Derek West and his colleagues are testing the power of gold. Nanoparticles of that precious metal can burn away cancer cells. They can also deliver micro-doses of chemotherapy to those cells. In other words, thanks to the work of Derek West and other scientists, technologists, and engineers, we may soon have treatments that target and kill cancer cells and leave the rest of our cells alone.

The dozens of interviews I have conducted for Math4Science introduced me to the research of West, Vickers, and DeSombre years before I discovered just how relevant that work would be to me and my family. They also provide the basis of the curriculum that will help us teach young math students the power of what they’re learning in school and its connections to the careers of so many essential people.

I have spoken with women and men whose work brings us water, protects us from hurricanes and other natural and less natural disasters, improves public transportation, manipulates genetic material to cure diseases like Huntington’s, investigates the damage done to our immune systems when we play football or experience even psychological childhood trauma, makes sure the products we buy work and are safe, and much more.

And I have spoken to the men and women whose research has impacted multiple generations of women in my family who are battling breast cancer and who have helped increase the survival rate for breast cancer significantly.

For your health and mine and for the health of generations to come, please protect, promote, and fund science. March for science Saturday and every day. And encourage children everywhere to study math and science and to become part of this fascinating, sometimes frustrating, powerful phenomenon. It’s likely to save my life, starting with surgery next Tuesday and with other treatments in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

Correction: The article originally stated that all but the last of Henning’s doctor’s visits occurred at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. It has been corrected to all but the first.

Justine Henning is the co-founder and director of programming at Math4Science Inc. Justine also runs a one-woman tutoring business in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Nick Jr. Family magazine, and at www.math4science.org.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.