Cancer cure? Lots of work outside labs

Sunday, May 17, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Most of the women at the table were familiar. Fellow breast cancer survivors, we've seen each other at benefits where you run for money or talk for money or eat for money. We've met at seminars and in hospital rooms and at memorial services.

My seat this time was next to a stranger, who introduced herself and said apologetically, ''Uh, I'm not a survivor. I'm just a friend. I'm just here for her.'' In other words, she paid $35 for a plate of rubber chicken ''just'' to help cure a disease she didn't even have.

I thought of Ms. Just-A-Friend again Monday when I read the news about the latest breakthrough in the treatment of cancer. Herceptin, which attacks the disease's genetic roots, is the result of two decades of cancer research. Thousands of lives will be saved. Or at least prolonged.

How many bike-a-thons and walk- aramas and wine tastings and fashion shows have collected money that wound up in the hands of scientists? How many men and women have volunteered to check coats and gather silent auction items? How many have offered up their bodies for research?

My own mother never missed an appointment with the doctors at the Barrett Center who were supervising the National Cancer Institute's tamoxifen study here. She drove her 74-year-old self 250 miles every time she was asked, not because she thought she might get cancer. But because she didn't want cancer to get my daughter.

On Sunday, more than 3,000 people in Greater Cincinnati walked to raise money for multiple sclerosis. A motorcycle club dispatched members to intersections to guide walkers over the 10-mile course. And kids from Princeton High School and the Teen Academy sang and cheered them at checkpoints along the way. Companies donated granola bars and pretzels and bananas and juice.

Men, women and children snaked up through Mount Adams and around East Walnut Hills wearing T-shirts with things like ''Willie's Walkers'' and ''Tom's Team'' and ''Mama's Hope'' and ''Michael's Angels.''

Just friends.

A national survey on volunteerism, commissioned by the United Parcel Service, found that most American adults - 78 percent - serve as volunteers in some capacity. The study reports that people who would like to be doing more volunteer work are the ones who most feel the importance of what they're doing.

Makes sense.

Sunday's walk ended at Sawyer Point, under a huge arch of balloons. As walkers finished, they passed a row of people in wheelchairs and on scooters, the MS ''cheerleaders,'' who applauded each sweaty walker. Sometimes it was clear that the effort for them of bringing two hands together was more difficult, took more energy, than the preceding 10- mile walk for the rest of us.

But I can understand why the effort is made. They are grateful to those who have joined their personal battle. A thank-you is essential, for both emotional and practical reasons. Even if it's not easy.

Pat on the back

Monday's news sounds good. Another cure on the horizon? Well, bravo to the doctors and scientists who battle cancer and cystic fibrosis and Parkinson's disease and muscular dystrophy and AIDS and multiple sclerosis. But let's not forget to give a great big roar of thanks to those who are neither medical experts nor sick, the people who are ''just'' friends.

Pat yourselves on the back, you runners and walkers and donors and guinea pigs. Give yourselves a big round of applause if you've licked envelopes and sat through interminable committee meetings.

Those of you who have held the hand of a spouse or a child or a friend or a neighbor, give yourself a cheer. Members of the casserole patrol - you tireless providers of food to the grieving, the weary, the sick - you are part of this, too.

This is your victory.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at