TIME

Unlocking the body’s defenses

New discoveries are mobilizing the immune system in the fight against breast cancer
Kathy James, a pharmacist, at the Englewood, Fla., clinic she and her husband founded to provide medical care to the community

AS A PHARMACIST, KATHY JAMES CONSIDERS HERSELF well educated about the importance of getting regular cancer screenings. Even though the 55-year-old had no history of cancer in her family, she never skipped her regular mammograms, and she gave herself regular breast exams. So she was dumbfounded when, during one of those self-exams in May 2017, she felt a marble-size lump in her left breast. A visit to the doctor confirmed it. “The radiologist came in with his hands in his pockets and looked down and said, ‘It doesn’t look good,’” James says. After a biopsy, James and her husband learned she had metastatic breast cancer. It was their 26th wedding anniversary.

James immediately wanted to have both breasts surgically removed, which she believed would drastically reduce the chance that the cancer would spread. “I wanted to be done with it all,” she says. “I was hell-bent on getting the double mastectomy.”

If James had been diagnosed even five years earlier, she likely would have gone through with the radical surgery, even though it would not have guaranteed her cancer would not spread, or return. A friend who is a cancer doctor advised her against getting the surgery and referred her to Dr. Brian Czerniecki at Moffitt Cancer Center, who told her about a pioneering study he was conducting to test a completely new way of fighting breast cancer—not solely with chemotherapy, radiation or surgery but by harnessing the power of her own immune system. The study and dozens of others like it are potentially rewriting the manual for breast-cancer care, giving patients unprecedented options

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