SANTA ANA, Calif. — Jane Pang has given her time, money and abounding energy to the fight against breast cancer. She’s also shared the most personal and precious gift of all, a piece of herself.
“The older we get, the greater your risk,” Pang said. “At 70, I haven’t gotten it. Are we who are elderly, without breast cancer, do we hold the cure?” Pang flew from Orange County, Calif., to Indianapolis in February so researchers could extract and freeze a sample of her healthy breast tissue for the Susan G. Komen Tissue Bank at Indiana University. The bank, supported by roughly $1 million a year in Komen funds, provides researchers from around the world with samples of normal tissue that can be compared with cancerous tissue to better understand and treat the disease.
Pang, of Huntington Beach, Calif., was joined by Garden Grove, Calif., resident Charlene Kazner and Angela Acevedo-Malouf of Mission Viejo, Calif. The women underwent biopsies to help increase the bank’s ethnic diversity — and to serve as ambassadors as recruitment begins for a first-ever West Coast tissue collection Nov. 2 in Orange County, Calif.
“It’s just such an unusual, really connected opportunity to be part of research,” said Lisa Wolter, executive director of Komen’s Orange County branch. “I’m not a scientist, I’m not a doctor, but I can do this.”
Since the tissue bank started in 2007, most of the 3,000-plus samples have come from white donors. But researchers need to study women of all backgrounds and stages of life — they need samples from a variety of ethnicities, ages and hormonal states, such as those brought on by pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause.
Dr. Anna Maria Storniolo, director of the Komen Tissue Bank, said researchers can request extremely specific tissue samples based, for instance, on a donor’s age, her number of children or her history of tobacco use. Donor identities are kept confidential.
She said researchers have published seven studies with data derived from the tissue bank, including one by Thea Tlsty, a University of California-San Francisco pathologist. Tlsty used tissue to study the cause of dense breasts, which are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. The findings were published in the journal Cancer Discovery.
“Without access to that tissue, we couldn’t have asked this question, we couldn’t have found these results,” Tlsty said. “You can’t get this from mice tissue. That’s why this bank is an incredible resource.”
Wolter said ideally 70 percent of the Orange County donors will be non-white, although no one who signs up will be turned away. Women 65 and older are also needed.
“Our goal is to make sure the word gets out to everyone, but to carry a message of the importance of involving the entire ethnic populations,” she said. “There is nothing better than a personal testimonial from someone who has gone through the process.”
To that end, the three women are speaking at public events, hanging signs where they shop and attending the Sept. 22 Race for the Cure at Fashion Island.
Jane Pang, a retired nurse, has cared for her husband, Victor, through three bouts of cancer, most recently of the breast. Breast cancer is about 100 times less common in men than women, according to the American Cancer Society.
Jane Pang, who is of Chinese and Japanese descent, grew up in Hawaii; her husband is native Hawaiian.
Mr. Pang, 75, first underwent chemotherapy and radiation in 1983 for an eye tumor stemming from non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Twenty years later, surgeons removed a golf-ball-sized brain tumor and he went through chemo again. In 2009, a small mass was detected during a routine chest X-ray. His left breast was removed and he again underwent chemo.
Long before, the Pangs were active in promoting breast health among Pacific Islanders after close friends developed breast cancer. But still, they were shocked by the diagnosis.
"We were rather overwhelmed despite the fact he's had all this background information," Ms. Pang said. "I discovered [men] go through the same trauma and the same emotional adjustment to the surgery itself."
For Ms. Pang, donating her tissue was never in question. The tissue bank hopes to eventually collect from men, Dr. Storniolo said.
"Going to Indiana, I really understood the plight they have," Ms. Pang said. "They are predominantly white. I said, ‘We've got to make a difference in Orange County. We've got the diversity. Let's step up.'"
Angela Acevedo-Malouf, 54, works as a nurse at St. Joseph Hospital's cancer center in Orange, Calif. But it wasn't until her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly three years ago that she gained better insight into what her patients experience.
Ms. Acevedo-Malouf's mother, 71, is doing well after undergoing a double mastectomy.
"I was there with my mom for the biopsy, the diagnosis, the chemo and the surgeries," she said. "When I work with my patients, this has helped me to view ahead what they might need."
Ms. Acevedo-Malouf grew up in Colombia, where she became a nurse. At 27, she moved to California and spent three years learning English before passing her registered nursing boards.
She previously worked at a community clinic that partnered with Komen to ensure that low-income women received breast screenings and mammograms. She continues volunteering to help educate Spanish-speaking women about mammograms.
When she heard about the tissue bank opportunity, she immediately volunteered.
"I have been talking to my friends. They've asked, ‘Does it hurt? How long does it take?'"
Ms. Acevedo-Malouf knew what to expect not only because of her nursing experience, but because in 2005 she underwent a breast biopsy that came back negative.
"Your whole world turns. You start to evaluate basically the whole life, saying, ‘What if? What if?'"
When it came time for her 45-minute appointment at Indiana University's cancer center, she felt calm and relaxed.
"You may feel the injection, which is a very fine needle of anesthetic," she said. "It's nothing more than maybe having a flu shot."
Afterward, she wore an ice pack in her bra for the flight home. She had a small bruise for a couple of days.
She tells friends how good she feels about her contribution.
"I'm very proud," Acevedo-Malouf said. "I'm very excited to one day find out results of what they have done with it. It's a good feeling to know something good will happen from this."