River of Hope

There's reason to be hopeful about breast cancer. Rates are going down and more women are surviving the disease. Follow our guide to reduce your risk.

River of Hope
Pin it Danny Miller

Mary Tagliaferri was 29 when she found a hard lump the size of a grain of rice in her left breast. The cancerous tumor was small and hadn’t spread, but her case confounded her doctors, who were unsure of how to treat such a young patient. Lumpectomy or full mastectomy? Should she have chemotherapy, which could send her into early menopause? Knowing she wanted to have kids, Tagliaferri chose a simple lumpectomy and radiation rather than chemotherapy and a mastectomy. Then a newly licensed acupuncturist, she sought the advice of a Chinese herbalist, who gave her a list of 20 Chinese herbs and instructed her to brew them together and drink the concoction three times a day. For a year, Tagliaferri downed the drink religiously and also got acupuncture treatments, all the while hoping the wisdom of a medical system that traces its lineage back thousands of years would make her well. Eleven years later, Tagliaferri, 41, is a single mother of two children, the editor of a well-respected book on alternative treatments for breast cancer, an M.D., and president and cofounder of Bionovo, a pharmaceutical company that uses botanical products to develop drugs for women’s health and cancer. “Our research is based on the principle that the planet contains the resources we need to heal ourselves,” she says.

Bionovo’s most promising breast cancer treatment so far is BZL101, a compound derived from the flowers and stems of Scutellaria barbata, or skullcap, one of the herbs Tagliaferri took when she was battling breast cancer. Laboratory experiments suggest the compound selectively kills cancer cells while sparing healthy cells. A preliminary study of 21 patients with metastatic disease found the drug was well-tolerated and safe. This year Bionovo launched a larger study that will eventually include 80 patients with late-stage breast cancer. The research will be conducted at ten major medical centers, including the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the University of California, San Francisco, Columbia University, and Duke University.

Scutellaria barbata is one of the 75 herbs Tagliaferri and her colleagues have screened in the two years since they founded Bionovo (of those, 25 have shown promise). But she cautions against taking these herbs and applying them to Western diseases. “They don’t have cancer in Traditional Chinese Medicine,” she explains. “They talk about the eight principles—yin and yang, hot and cold, excess and deficiency, interior and exterior. We have to translate the poetry in order to use this medicine.”