It was a time when people didn't talk about breast cancer. And despite the career path she chose, Emens has never asked for the particulars of just what her mother went through. She thinks her mom had a mastectomy soon after the lump was found. She knows her mom didn't want chemotherapy. She didn't want her hair to fall out.
"She lived until I was 16," she says. In the Emens family, "we don't talk about it still."
Though Emens didn't know it at the time, something was cemented in her as she watched her mother die: a need to find a way to do something about the disease that took her down in the prime of her life.
Start of her researchWith the backing of Jaffee and other vaccine researchers at Hopkins, Emens got to work in July 1999 on a breast cancer vaccine. She painstakingly grew cancer cell lines in the lab, finding the just the right ones to genetically modify with GM-CSF. She wrote protocols and grants to pay for her research.
Nine years later, Emens is overseeing her own clinical trials, paid for mostly with money from the National Institutes of Health with help from charitable organizations such as the Avon Foundation. The two trials cost more than $2 million each.
At the oncology conference, Emens reported that between nine and 14 of the women who received the vaccine had immune responses. Administering a very low dose of one chemotherapy agent, she told the doctors in the room, elicited a better response than giving more.
This is where Emens is most original, others say, in not just mixing together drugs to see if they make tumors disappear but in methodically testing which drug combinations may work and why. She is determining just where the balance is tipped.
"She's got the most innovative stuff," said Dr. Bernard Fox, president-elect of the International Society for Biological Therapy of Cancer. "She's got a lot more work to do, but it's encouraging."
For now, Emens says she doesn't know how well the vaccine is working. She won't say how many of the women in the first trial - the last woman just received her final shot - are still alive. She says she can't share those kinds of details until her scientific paper is complete a year or so from now and the results have been reviewed and legitimized by her peers.
What she can say is that some women are responding. What she can't say is whether that equates to longer survival, to the extension of life her patients desperately want.
Her short-term goal is to see if the immune system reacts to the vaccine by arming itself with cancer-fighting antibodies and T-cells. In the medium term, Emens hopes to give a vaccine to women with early-stage breast cancer, alongside standard chemotherapy and radiation, to help keep the disease from coming come back. In the long term, Emens and others dream of creating a vaccine in every sense of the word, for healthy women at high risk of developing breast cancer. Many groups of researchers are working to get there.
Trials like hers can be, by their nature, difficult to draw conclusions from. How much can be learned about whether the vaccine could work on the healthy when the test subjects enroll as long shots for survival?
There is so much talk about all that can be done for breast cancer patients now, but that's the story of early-stage disease. When the cancer returns elsewhere in the body - as it will in up to 40 percent of cases - it can no longer be cured. Each year, 40,000 American women still die of breast cancer. They are the ones Emens yearns to help. They are the ones who remind her how difficult that will be.
"If I took every failure to heart, I couldn't come to work every day. Is it a failure? We're not curing them," Emens says. "But we're helping them to live their lives. You do the best you can with what you have and you focus on making better tools."
She stops and takes a breath before continuing. "It affects me more than you think."
Climbing for fundsEmens arrives on a swampy evening in early June at a Timonium fitness center. She exchanges her white lab coat and stethoscope for gym clothes and weights, priming her middle-aged body to scale one of the highest peaks in the world.
In five days, she and 21 others leave for Tanzania, where they will tackle Mount Kilimanjaro. It's not all for pleasure. The climbers will raise roughly $200,000 toward Emens' research.
A sprite of a trainer marches the doctor through a grueling workout: doing push-ups on a giant exercise ball, hoisting a 30-pound pack over her head as she walks backward at a 15-degree incline, lifting dumbbells as she balances on a moving platform.
The first of these charity climbs - to Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador - was planned two years earlier by Baltimore Jewish Times publisher Andrew Buerger, whose sister has advanced breast cancer. Emens told him she wanted to come along. There's no room for spectators, he told her. Oh no, she replied, she planned to reach the 19,000-foot summit.
She had never before climbed a mountain.
Now, she can't seem to stop.
more on the seriesComing tomorrow in The Baltimore Sun: Some women see the vaccine trial as one last chance for a breast cancer cure. How one woman comes to terms with the fact that, despite the vaccine, her disease keeps spreading.
Online at baltimoresun.com/vaccine: Watch a video of Dr. Leisha Emens discussing the breast cancer vaccine and find more photos and yesterday's installment of the series
Tonight on WJZ: Watch one woman's personal story as she battles breast cancer. Can this study save her life? The emotional interview, Monday at 11 on WJZ Maryland's News Station