Imagine Curing Breast Cancer
Michelle McBride admits she's "driven."
"I'm always trying to raise a little more money," said McBride, vice president of the Noreen Fraser Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting research into women's cancers.
For McBride, it's personal.
On Dec. 11, 2011, she turned 39 years and 24 days old. It's not a milestone most of us would mark, but for McBride, of Glencoe, Ill., it held special significance. Both her mother and grandmother had died young, and McBride had, on that day, lived longer than her mom had. "When your mother dies young, it's natural to assume you'll die young too -- especially when your grandmother also died early," explained McBride. "My husband and I were up until midnight; I turned to the clock and said, 'I made it.'"
For McBride, a mother of three, it had been an arduous journey. Sensitized to her familial risk of cancer by watching her mother succumb to the disease at 39 and the knowledge that her grandmother had died of it at 44, she underwent a test in 2006 that found a particular genetic mutation. It meant her odds of getting breast cancer were 87 percent. She stood a 27 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer.
"I cried," she recalled. "I was sad my mother didn't have the chance to learn what I had about our genetic makeup and to do something that could have prevented her death."
McBride, a former attorney, embarked on a course of screening and self-education that culminated in her decision -- in her mid-30s and without any indication of cancer -- to have her breasts and ovaries removed.
She documented her experiences in a series of moving online journal entries.
"I am trying to break a pattern that is woven into my genetic fiber," she wrote after deciding on the mastectomy.
McBride consulted widely about the best place for treatment. All roads led to the University of Chicago Medicine.
"I knew the university had a stellar program," she said. But conferring with luminaries during an American Association for Cancer Research meeting "sealed the deal."
"Hands-down, they said, 'Go to the University of Chicago.'"
McBride registered as a patient with Olufunmilayo I. Olopade, MD, an international leader in breast cancer research. McBride's mastectomy was performed by Nora Jaskowiak, MD, and a subsequent breast reconstruction followed.
"They're remarkable," she said. "They worked so well together, and listened to me every step of the way."
Today, McBride draws upon her experiences for inspiration in her role at the Noreen Fraser Foundation.
Philanthropy is especially important amid shrinking science budgets, she said.
"We're making such strides in research that it's imperative to continue supporting groundbreaking work."
One project the foundation supports -- through a $150,000 grant -- is Olopade's pioneering 4,000-patient study of triple-negative breast cancer, a virulent cancer that disproportionately strikes women of African descent.
"Their funding is vital," said Olopade. "We want to prevent breast cancer through better risk assessment, improved guidance on lifestyle changes, new therapies and less-invasive procedures.
"Our hope is that one day women like Michelle will be spared the tough decisions she faced."
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This story originally ran in the Spring 2012 issue of Imagine, a quarterly magazine published by the University of Chicago Medicine.
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