Our bodies are unique. Our cancers are too.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month celebrates, in part, how much better we understand how cancer behaves. But the great challenge for researchers remains: Cancer has many faces.

A woman performs a breast self-examination to check for changes in the tissue. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, and self-examination accounts for about 65 percent of breast cancer discoveries.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, Nat Geo Image Collection

The body is a brilliant machine, designed to be strong and resilient. It heals from wounds and fends off sickness. It provides us with T cells, which patrol the body to recognize and destroy abnormalities and invaders. Most of the time, the system self-regulates without us even being aware of the work it’s doing. But sometimes, the system glitches: Cancer happens.

As Dr. Jedd Wolchok, a medical oncologist who treated my cancer and the guy who eventually saved my life, explains it: “The idea is that there are several phases in immune surveillance. The first is elimination. Tumor arises. Immune system sees it. It’s gotten rid of. End of story. The next phase is equilibrium, where a tumor arises, the immune system sees it, can’t quite get rid of it, but the cancer doesn’t do any more; it doesn’t spread.

“Then there’s the final E— escape. Escape is what we deal with, unfortunately, on a day-to-day basis. The tumor has learned skills that allow it to evade the immune system.”

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