Survivors, researchers battle to end breast cancer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The battle to cure breast cancer is a fight that happens every day in a lab at the Mayo Clinic.

"The important thing to me is that people need to know that advances are really being made today that are helping people today, but we need to continue this path," explained Dr. Edith Perez.

Perez (pictured, right) says those advances come from a great team of scientists, researchers, clinicians and patients, all working together at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville to understand cancer, unravel the mystery of the disease and work to cure it.

Channel 4 asked, "People around the world are watching you, oncologists are waiting and they want to know, will a cure for cancer come from this lab?"

Perez answered, "I can tell you for sure, some of the work that we have already done has translated into cures for many patients. It just needs to be bigger and we are doing that kind of work to get where we need to get."

Perez is known around the world for her work curing the most aggressive forms of breast cancer.  As deputy director at Large of Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center, this Jacksonville resident thinks globally, sharing her discoveries internationally.

"I spend a lot of my time educating physicians and patients all over the world," Perez said. "And I feel like it's good to do something for ourselves, but also very important to reach out to try to help others."

And others do benefit. Recently Perez was speaking to physicians in Beijing.

"They took me to a room where two women were getting a therapy that I helped develop right here, and they were so happy to meet me and I was so honored to meet them back," Perez explained.

It's her life work that's life-changing, and with her lab partner, Dr. Aubrey Thompson (pictured left), by her side, it's life-saving, too.

"It's nice when things work in my career," Perez said. "It appears that some of the ideas that I've had have really worked for the benefit of many patients."

One of those patients is long-time local news anchor Donna Deegan. She was treated by Perez through three bouts with breast cancer.  Deegan has now become a champion of Mayo's work.

Deegan (pictured, right) started a foundation and a marathon, drawing runners from around the world, helping raise awareness about breast cancer and raising funds to help fuel Mayo Clinic's research.

"Together we've been able to create something that I think, really, is very good for science, for breast cancer, for the city of Jacksonville, for research, as well as for each one of us individually," said Perez.

Deegan is amazed at how far the research has come.

"There are new types of genes called fusion genes that we did not even know existed, that exist in a number of other different types of cancers," explained Deegan. "So what we're learning with the research dollars from the marathon may in fact end up affecting treatments or cures for a number of cancers. Isn't that exciting?"

Right now there are breakthroughs against cancers that just 15 years ago were a certain death sentence.

"Today, if someone's diagnosed with a tumor, that is what we call HER2 positive. The patient has initial surgery and some treatment, and with the treatment, we reduce the likelihood that the cancer will come back in half," explained Perez. "And we improve the likelihood of survival of 10 years by 40 percent. That's pretty dramatic, huh?"

And then there is race day, which is beneficial not just to cancer survivors, but to everyone who runs.

"Exercising on a regular basis is one thing that we can do for ourselves," said Perez. "So, I want to encourage more persons to be involved. It's been great so far, but I want it to be even greater."

Both Perez and Thompson say it's imperative the research done in the Mayo Clinic's lab applies to the real person. They will pursue it only if it benefits patients' lives. And it's the lives of the women they see running the annual marathon that inspires them.

"And I come away from that thinking I need to go back to the lab, I need to do more to fight breast cancer, a moral obligation to fight breast cancer," explained Thompson.

Deegan shared a conversation she had with Thompson.

"He said, 'I honestly believe Donna, in 20 years, considering where we are right now, that we will not have breast cancer.'  I'm like, 'please, that would be awesome.'"

To find out more about The Donna Foundation and the annual marathon go to

About the Authors:

At WJXT for a quarter of a century, Mary Baer anchors the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. news weekdays.