Women's Health

In Historic First, Woman Is Cured of Stage 4 Breast Cancer

In Historic First, Woman Is Cured of Stage 4 Breast Cancer

Across the globe, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women and it is ranked the fifth deadliest cancer. In the United States, around 155,000 women (and men) are living with metastatic breast cancer, also known as stage 4 breast cancer. This type of cancer means that the cancer has metastasized or spread to other areas of the body. According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for stage 4 breast cancer is 22%. Around 20-30% of women with stage 0 or stage 1 breast cancer – the earliest stages of the cancer - go on to develop metastatic breast cancer.

Although treatable, the cancer cannot be cured – that is, up until recently when, for the first time in history, a woman battling advanced stage breast cancer was considered “cured” by an experimental new therapy.

Triumph over cancer

When Judy Perkins, an engineer and a mother of two, was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer back in 2003, she thought that she had beaten her battle with the disease. “I thought I was done with it,” she said. However, about 10 years later, she felt a new lump and this time, doctors informed her that the cancer had already spread to her chest. “I became a metastatic cancer patient. That was hard,” she said.

52-year-old Perkins was given three months to live after undergoing mastectomy, hormonal therapy, and several chemotherapy sessions that failed to keep the cancer from spreading to other areas of her body. A few of her tumors even developed to the size of tennis balls. “My condition deteriorated a lot towards the end, and I had a tumor pressing on a nerve, which meant I spent my time trying not to move at all to avoid pain shooting down my arm,” said Perkins. She had given up fighting, knowing that the odds were against her.

The clinical trial that would change her life

It was then that Perkins decided to enroll in a cancer trial at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, led by Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg, cancer researcher and surgeon. The trial called for undergoing an experimental type of immunotherapy – an altered form of adoptive cell transfer - which was designed to help battle some of the most common cancers, including breast cancer.

The therapy involved removing one of the tumors from Perkins’s body and studying its DNA to find mutations specific to the cancer. The mutations were key to pinpointing the disruption in Perkins’s genes that produced a wide range of abnormal proteins in her tumors. 

Read on to learn more about the side effects of this treatment, how it helped Judy beat cancer, and what all of this means for the future of the breast cancer community.

Photo: Wall Street Journal