IN 1998 BITSY BRUMAGE, one of my friends in San Antonio, had a recurrence of breast cancer, the same disease that had killed my mother five years before. Unlike my mother, Bitsy decided to participate in a clinical trial to test a new cancer drug she believed had a good chance to extend her life. I admired Bitsy’s courage, so different from my mother’s unwillingness to seek aggressive treatment: Mom wouldn’t even consider seeking a second opinion, much less volunteer for experimental drugs. She was afraid of offending her doctor. To my mother and her generation, breast cancer was a death sentence. To Bitsy and women of my generation, it’s a long-running emotional and scientific riddle. I think of these human volunteers who take part in clinical trials as the Good Rats—subjects in the great experiment to get new drugs and treatments out of the research lab and onto the market and, ultimately, solve the riddle of breast cancer.
The recurrence was a surprise—but so had