In her 30-year battle with breast cancer, Carmen Teixidor thought she had experienced every treatment doctors could hurl at the disease. She had endured multiple bouts of radiation and multiple courses of hormone therapy. She tried chemotherapy once, about 25 years ago, but it diminished the quality of her life so much that she’s tried to avoid it ever since. She had multiple surgeries, too, and she developed a dread of the moment when she came out of anesthesia and into consciousness, almost inevitably to hear bad news. That is how she first learned, in the summer of 1985, that after doctors had found a large tumor in her left breast they had felt compelled to perform a mastectomy.
“Absolute terror,” she recalls, staring down at the floor of her New York apartment. There’s never a good time for a cancer diagnosis, but for Teixidor, it came just as her career as an artist had begun to take off—two of her life-size sculptures had been acquired for the grounds of Rockefeller University, and she had recently completed a mural at Harlem Hospital. A slender woman now in her 70s, graying hair gathered in a youthful ponytail, she has dealt with one recurrence after another, submitting to medical tools from the scalpel to, most recently and perhaps most improbably, the molecule.
Teixidor barely noticed when, in the fall of 2013, her doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York analyzed a small snippet of her tumor and sequenced the DNA in her cancer cells. They did this, as an increasing number of academic cancer centers are doing, to look for telltale mutations that might drive malignant growth. Certain of these mutations are the targets of a new generation of specially designed drugs.
As it turned out, Teixidor’s tumor indeed possessed several medically interesting mutations. But there was a catch: no existing drug was targeted to hers in particular. In the fall of 2013 that wasn’t particularly worrisome, because her cancer, despite many recurrences, seemed to be under control. And then everything changed.
“Two years ago,” she says, “there was a very bad recurrence.” She could feel tumors poking out from the back of her skull. Another tumor took root in her jaw. There were tumors in her neck, and scans revealed more in her bones and pelvis. It was a new, and ominous, phase of the disease that has shadowed her for so long. But when her oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York recommended a course of chemotherapy, Teixidor refused. “I got very depressed by the idea that I had to choose between nothing and chemotherapy,” she admits.
As Teixidor’s cancer had changed, however, so too had the science. One of the mutations in her tumors now matched the target of an experimental drug being tested at Sloan Kettering and elsewhere. Even as an academic debate raged over the value of precision medicine in cancer (one recent scientific critique described it as “the precision oncology illusion”), Teixidor enrolled in the clinical trial, and she began taking the drug in the late summer of 2015. Within weeks, she could feel her tumors regressing—and imaging scans subsequently confirmed that they had.