Lina Zeldovich in Nautilus:
In 2017, Karen Kostroff, a renowned oncology surgeon at Northwell Health in the New York Metropolitan area added a new talking point to her standard conversation with breast cancer patients facing tumor removal surgery. These conversations are never easy, because a cancer diagnosis is devastating news. But the new topic seemed to give her patients a sense of purpose, a feeling that their medical misfortune had the potential to do something good for other people. Kostroff was asking her patients if they would donate their tumors to science. Researchers were studying the malignant cells, hoping one day to disarm them and stop them from spreading. “You could see that there was a twinkle in their eye,” Kostroff says. “It gives them hope that even if the currently available treatments may not always cure them, this may help them or others in the future, maybe their children or relatives.”
Most cancer patients don’t die from their so-called primary tumor—the spot where it first develops. Once detected, surgeons cut it out or administer therapies to kill it—such as chemotherapy, radiation, or immunotherapy. But cancer cells have an uncanny ability to travel. They slip through blood vessels’ walls and catch a ride in the bloodstream to new places. Breast cancer’s favorite destinations are the liver, lungs, bones, and brain, Kostroff says. Once there, they begin multiplying and become nearly impossible to extinguish.