Triple-negative breast cancer survivor: Why I’m glad I stayed on an immunotherapy clinical trial

Until I was diagnosed with stage I triple-negative breast cancer in December 2016, I didn’t know much about immunotherapy. But as an executive assistant in MD Anderson’s Radiation Oncology department for more than 25 years, I’d heard the term used before by our doctors. I never thought that one day it would save my own life.

When I started my treatment, I joined a clinical trial being conducted by MD Anderson’s Breast Cancer Moon Shot™. The trial was unique because I was able to start with traditional chemotherapy and move on to other treatments only if that didn’t work. I learned many patients with triple-negative breast cancer respond well to chemotherapy, but this trial would provide me with personalized options if my tumor didn’t.

Unfortunately, my tumor progressed after two cycles of chemo. After analyzing my tumor, my doctors thought I would be a good candidate for an immunotherapy clinical trial, also part of the Moon Shot, that was only available here in Houston.

What made me try an immunotherapy clinical trial

I was a little nervous when Dr. Nuhad Ibrahim first mentioned the clinical trial. To me, that meant I may or may not receive the medicine being tested, and I couldn’t be sure if it would work, even if I did receive it. But Dr. Ibrahim told me that this combination of drugs had already shown some very positive results in treating stage IV ovarian cancer, and triple-negative breast cancer is notoriously hard to treat. After we talked about it, I felt comfortable and confident, so I decided to do it.

I started receiving an immunotherapy drug called atezolizumab in combination with a chemotherapy drug, Abraxane® (nab-paclitaxel), by IV once a week on March 13. After only three doses, an ultrasound showed my tumor had shrunk by 76%. By the time I had surgery on July 5, 2017, there was nothing left to remove. Only seven months after diagnosis, there were no traces of cancer in my body. That’s about the best result you can get.

Why I didn’t give up on the immunotherapy clinical trial

Ironically, I almost didn’t stay on the clinical trial. I developed a cough and shortness of breath fairly soon after starting immunotherapy, and went to MD Anderson’s Emergency Center. The doctor there was concerned I might be developing treatment-related pneumonia, so he admitted me to the hospital. That scared me.

It turned out to be just a virus. But I talked over my fears with Dr. Ibrahim anyway. He was very reassuring. He said side effects were a possibility with any treatment, and he encouraged me to give the clinical trial a little more time.

I am so glad I took Dr. Ibrahim’s advice. Because immunotherapy works. It worked for me. And now, it’s going to help other women, too.

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