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High Hopes
Photo by
John Davis
Leisha A. Emens usually battles breast cancer in the lab. An oncologist, she has spent the past eight years at Johns Hopkins developing a cell-based vaccine that stimulates the immune system to fight tumor growth. By combining vaccinations with other therapies, Emens hopes ultimately to prevent the disease. "We're trying to develop a strategy that teaches your body to recognize and destroy tumors," she says. "No currently available breast cancer therapy works this way. That's what makes this so attractive."

But for 10 days in January, Emens took the fight outside — to Quito, Ecuador, and up 19,500 feet to the rim of one of the world's highest active volcanoes, Cotopaxi. She was one of about 20 participants in the first-ever "Climb for Hope," organized by Baltimore publisher Andy Buerger, whose sister was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. The climb was led by Chris Warner, who summited Mt. Everest in 2001 and is founder of Earth Treks, a Maryland-based guide service. Participants all paid their own way to Ecuador, plus committed to raise $5,000 each to fund Emens' research. As the date of the ascent neared, the group had raised nearly $130,000.

Emens was no climber before this trip, unless you count an Outward Bound trek when she was 18. She prefers a hike that ends in a hotel. "My ideal is to get back to town in the evening, go to the spa, have a glass of wine," she says. But she embraced the challenge, joining a gym and hiring a personal trainer. She trained two hours a day, five to six days a week. She even went for physiological testing to measure her pulmonary capacity and muscular endurance (and came out with a T-shirt that read, "Building Better Athletes Through Science"). "This is something that usually only really hardcore people do," she says with a laugh.

When she was 15, Emens lost her mother to breast cancer. "That's what drives me," she says. "Breast cancer affects women in the prime of life. That has a huge impact on society." — Catherine Pierre

Return to February 2007 Table of Contents

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