We have all heard that personalized medicine is the future of cancer treatment. Fortunately for some, the future is here now! At the National Breast Cancer Coalition Project LEAD conference last summer, a staff member from the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition met Judy Anderson, a stage 4 breast cancer survivor from Florida. Judy’s incredible story of breast cancer diagnosis, recurrence, treatment, and her experience in a clinical trial is told below. We are amazed that the future of breast cancer treatment is here and Judy has experienced it! We wish her a cancer-free future filled with much happiness!
While President Obama and Vice President Biden are beginning work on a new initiative in the fight against cancer, a Port St. Lucie woman has just returned from the front lines in the battle to cure cancer with some hopeful news. Judy Perkins Anderson has had Stage 4 breast cancer since August, 2013. She was originally diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 and had a mastectomy. Since she became metastatic, in the last 2-1/2 years, she has been through numerous treatments including several different hormonal therapies, chemotherapies and targeted therapies. Last summer, with treatment options running out, she found out about a clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD. The trial, “Immunotherapy Using Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocytes for Patients with Metastatic Cancer”, builds on existing immunotherapy that has already shown success with melanoma patients. This trial expands the patient population to include people with other cancers with solid metastatic tumors.
The theory behind this treatment is that part of our immune system is still trying to fight the cancer. However, most of our immune system no longer recognizes the cancer as an enemy and is no longer trying to attack it. Tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL) are white blood cells (WBCs) that have penetrated the tumor and are trying to fight the cancer. They are a small minority of the WBCs in our bodies and do not have sufficient numbers to effectively fight the cancer.
In Mrs. Anderson’s case, she had a tumor removed in August, 2015 to potentially develop her treatment. Her tumor was cut into 24 pieces and the TIL were watched to see if any of them would attack the cancer. In four of the 24 pieces, activity was seen. Subsequently, the active TIL from these four tumor pieces were grown up into an army of about 80 billion T-cells focused only on killing her cancer. This “selective TIL treatment” was ready for Mrs. Anderson just before Christmas in December, 2015.
Prior to receiving her “TIL army” as Mrs. Anderson calls it, she was given high dose chemotherapy that killed all the other WBCs in her system. This way, when the selective TIL treatment was infused, the only target was the cancer cells. With time, her bone marrow will regenerate the other WBCs which are an integral part of our normal immunity that fights infections and disease.
Mrs. Anderson returned home on New Year’s Day 2016 and has been recovering from the TIL treatment which can be, in her words, “a grueling affair”. Amazingly, she reports that more than half a dozen tumors that she could feel in her chest have “melted away”. She has stopped all pain medications that she had been taking to control the pain from the cancer. Her doctors at NIH are already very optimistic saying that such a rapid response is unusual. Mrs. Anderson will get scans in early February that will confirm what she already knows, that she is heading for a remission. How long it will last, remains to be seen. But, for other patients that have responded, sometimes the remissions have lasted a long time. Until there is evidence to the contrary, Mrs. Anderson is resuming life without cancer and beginning once again to plan for the future.
What do you think after reading about Judy’s experience? What questions do you have about TIL treatment and cancer fighting of the future? What do you wish you knew earlier or want to know now about clinical trials?
If you would like to find out more about participating in a clinic trial or becoming involved with the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition’s Clinical Trials Mentoring Initiative, please contact Beth. Researchers and the medical community recognize the need for trained advocates and their support role to the clinical trials process. Without participants, research outcomes are limited.
If you want to learn more about the science of breast cancer and Project LEAD, please visit the National Breast Cancer Coalition website.