ATLANTA — LaTonia Taliaferro Smith is waging a personal war on breast cancer from her Emory University lab.
The disease, which is a leading cause of cancer death in women behind the No. 1 cause of lung cancer, has affected 10 women in her husbands family. Perhaps even more.
She has a 12-year-old daughter who she prays will never have to hear the chilling words You have breast cancer.
Its been devastating, said Smith, a researcher specializing in triple negative breast cancer at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. We celebrate deaths as much as we do birthdays.
Ive been a sounding board for family members, friends and friends of friends who are newly diagnosed. Its heartbreaking and theres nothing I can do about it at least for this generation.
Smiths lab is on the front lines of the war against breast cancer, particularly triple negative breast cancer, which disproportionately affects younger women, African-Americans and Hispanics. Each day, she comes to work at the lab intent on finding better treatment options and perhaps, one day, a cure.
Triple negative is one of several subtypes of breast cancer.
Theres no longer a medical model of one size fits all, said Dr. April L. Speed, a breast surgeon and expert on breast cancer.
Triple negative is more challenging to treat than many forms of breast cancer because the tumor lacks the three known receptors that fuel most kinds of the disease, rendering some treatments ineffective.
Smith said triple negative represents about 15 percent to 20 percent of breast cancer cases.
The incidence of triple negative disease in black women with breast cancer ranges from 26 percent to 46 percent; the incidence in non-black women is between 13 percent and 16 percent.
Certainly some of the disparity is due to poorer access to health care, meaning many black women do not seek treatment until the disease has progressed to later stages, said Dr. Ruth ORegan, a professor and vice chairwoman of educational affairs, hematology and oncology at Emorys School of Medicine.
Research, however, has shown a disparity in the subtypes of breast cancers that black women develop compared with white women. Smith said the outcomes for black women with triple negative breast cancer tend to be worse than those for white women. She thinks the key to these differences may be molecular and environmental. And generally, when triple negative disease recurs, the cancer returns much more aggressively.
Smith doesnt know how many of her husband Duanes relatives in New Orleans had triple negative breast cancer. She suspects several did, but she doesnt know for sure because some medical records were lost in the flooding after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or because some cases were too old.
The two met while she was a student at Dillard University in New Orleans. She planned to become a physician, a dream she had nurtured since her childhood in Mobile, Ala.
As their relationship deepened, Smith got closer to her husbands family, especially his older sister, Terri. In 2001, a diagnosis showed Terri had breast cancer. She started peppering Smith with phone calls and questions.
What is the survival rate? What are my treatment options? Later, it became: How long do I have to live? Terri died in 2005 at age 47.
Each call sent Smith, who now lives in Lawrenceville, Ga., back to her textbooks and further research.
The calls continued after other members of her husbands family received diagnoses of breast cancer. Among those stricken were four paternal aunts, both grandmothers and his sister.
It flipped everything, said Duane Smith.
His wife once wanted to be a neonatal physician. She changed her career to focus on breast cancer.
She not only wanted to have the answers for my sister, but black women in general, he said.
How can you not love somebody who changes everything because they see you hurting? I hate cancer with a passion, and we have to make sure were in front of it.
LaTonia Smith calls her work a very personal mission. I dont consider this a job.