When a person is ill, conventional medicine can almost always determine the cause and, more often than not, there is some sort of standard treatment that can address the problem. If everything goes as it should, the person is cured and can move on with their life.
But sometimes, the conventional treatments don’t work. When that happens, things can get very dangerous for the patient, especially if the illness is life-threatening. When one woman had exhausted all of the conventional options before her, she would find that a new experimental treatment offered a chance for survival…
In 2003, Judy was a 38-year-old engineer and mother of 2 young sons living out a normal life. Her marriage was good, her children were happy and her oldest, 5 years old, was getting used to school while her 3-year-old was wishing he could go.
Everything was going well for the Florida mom until she got the news that everyone dreads: she had breast cancer. Fortunately, it had been caught early — “stage 0” her doctor said, calling it “precancer.” She had a very good chance for successful treatment..
Under The Knife
“I had a mastectomy. I had all my lymph nodes out,” Judy said. Along with medications and chemotherapy, the treatment seemed to work. After the cancer scare, she was fully cured and got back to life as usual.
Everything was fine until 10 years later when her worst nightmare reared its ugly head again. “I felt another lump on the same side, and this time it ended up being stage 4,” Judy said. “So, I entered the world of a cancer patient. Serious cancer patient.”…
Making The Most
“They told me I had 3 years to live,” Judy said. “That was actually better than I expected. Still, I really wanted a lot more time with my husband and 2 young sons.” She began chemotherapy and quit her job, spending whatever time she could with her family, traveling to places on her bucket list.
But as time progressed, the chemotherapy seemed to have no effect and her cancer continued to grow and spread. Some of her tumors had grown to the size of tennis balls. Her doctors moved on to more experimental treatments and medications but nothing seemed to work…
“I had sort of essentially run out of arrows in my quiver,” Judy said. “While I would say I had some hope, I was also kind of like ready to quit, too.” No longer well enough to travel or even move around much, Judy’s plans “were to binge watch TV and read books until I died.”
Then she met Dr. Stephanie Goff of the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research. Dr. Goff was conducting a clinical trial for a new type of cancer treatment called immunotherapy, a process where the patient’s own immunity cells are bolstered to treat cancer. When she found out she was suitable for the trial, Judy Perkins jumped at the chance to join in…
It’s not that her hopes were high. Immunotherapy was a type of cancer treatment that showed promise to one day become an effective treatment but at the moment, had a low rate of success. But with all other options exhausted, she had no other choices that weren’t long shots.
Seek And Destroy
The medical team took a sample from one of the tumors to identify its unique “signature,” the genetic mutations that are different in every person’s cancer. They then took samples of Judy’s white blood cells to see if they were capable of destroying any of those mutations. Of the 62 mutations they found, her white blood cells were able to attack 4…
From the sampling of her white blood cells, the doctors grew billions more in the laboratory over the next 8 weeks. Then, with a single injection in December of 2015, they put those cells back into Judy’s body so they could go to work attacking her tumors.
Along with the injection of white blood cells, she had to take some medications that would help them do their work, one of which had severe, flu-like side effects. Judy was feverish, lethargic and “at one point, I had the shivers so badly they had to give me a muscle relaxant,” she said…
But just over a week after the injection, Judy could already notice a difference. She had one tumor that had started pressing on a nerve in her arm a few months ago, causing a great deal of pain. “I could already feel that tumor started to get soft,” she said. The pain from the nerve seemed to grow just a bit more bearable each day.
“When I got home,” she said, “I could tell that it was still shrinking; after a week or two, it was pretty much gone.” It was an amazing feeling but Judy was cautious with her hope. “I knew things were moving in the right direction, I just didn’t know how long it would last,” she said…
A few weeks later, Judy was still exhausted all the time but all of her pain was gone. “I remember being happy in January just to walk around the block with my husband again, even though I had to stop and rest every few minutes. But I started to improve more quickly after that.” She said.
My Old Self
“When I went back to the doctor in March,” she said, “they told me the tumors had significantly decreased.” By April, Judy felt more or less her old, pre-cancer self. “It was strange. I was preparing to die, and then suddenly it’s like, ‘I feel better now, I guess I’ll go hiking or paddle-boarding,’” she said…
Her miraculous turnaround proved to be permanent as, 2-and-a-half years after her treatment, her body is completely free of any detectable cancer. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” Judy said. “We got the right T cells in the right place at the right time. And they went in and ate up all my cancer. And I’m cured. It’s freaking unreal.”
But Dr. Steven Rosenberg, one of Judy’s doctors cautioned that immunotherapy is still a treatment in the early research stages and doesn’t work for everyone. Of the 45 people in Judy’s clinical trial, the treatment was only effective for 7 of them. “Is it ready for prime time today? No. Can we do it in most patients today? No,” he said…
On The Cusp
Still, many members of the medical community are excited about the potential immunotherapy has shown. Dr. Laszlo Radvanyi, scientific director of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research called Judy’s results “remarkable,’ saying that scientists may be “at the cusp of a major revolution” in fighting cancer through immunotherapy.
James Heath, president of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle said “Metastatic breast cancer is basically a death sentence and this shows that you can reverse it. It’s a big deal.” It’s certainly the biggest deal of Judy’s life.
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