What to tell her students? Was this too graphic, too hard for 16- and 17-year-olds to process?
No, she decided, she would not candy-coat things. Since doctors had first diagnosed her, Ocker had pledged to use her experiences as a way to make cancer real to her students. Yes, the disease was scary. But obscuring the details—“I’m sorry, I don’t want to talk about it”—would only fuel her students’ fears. If Ms. Ocker won’t tell us, they’d think, it’s got to be pretty awful.
She warned the students that what she was about to tell them would contain details that might make them uncomfortable. She gave them the chance to leave the room. None did.
The teens asked what it was like to have a portion of her breast removed. The toll that cancer drugs exacted on her body. If she was scared to die.
Ocker pulled no punches in her answers. “I expected there would be calls from outraged parents, but I didn’t care. Their questions needed to be answered.”
The calls never came.
SINCE 1975 PUTNAM CITY SCHOOLS have conducted an annual fund drive to raise money to support cancer research at OMRF. What started out as a door-to-door change collecting effort at a single school has evolved into a district-wide campaign involving all manner of events—bake sales, carnivals, volleyball marathons, car washes, auctions. During the 2008-09 school year, the drive raised more than $100,000.
For the 2009-10 school year, Ocker agreed to serve as the “poster child” for the Putnam City High cancer drive. The activities director at Putnam City came up with a theme for that year’s drive: “Ocker’s Army.” When Ocker arrived at work on what she thought would be a typical Friday that fall, she was greeted by hundreds of students and colleagues donning tee shirts bearing her name.
Like every other part of the drive, proceeds from the sales of those tee shirts will go to support cancer research at OMRF. Among OMRF’s current efforts in that area are two projects focused on breast cancer.
In the first, Dr. Hong Chen has discovered a molecular pathway that appears to play a crucial role in the growth and metastasis of breast cancer. She has hypothesized that disrupting this pathway could have important therapeutic affects, both in reducing primary tumors and the spread of breast cancer. A second project led by Dr. Robert Floyd has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to conduct pre-clinical testing of a compound that, in the laboratory, has been shown to stop tumor growth.
The most exciting aspect of these projects, says Prescott, is that they are not “tumor-specific.” In other words, “If either or both of these strategies work, they could be used to treat any form of breast cancer,” as opposed to the currently available treatments like Tamoxifen and Herceptin, which only work in breast cancers with a specific molecular signature.