There are few things more frightening than an advanced cancer diagnosis. Karen Peterson knows this better than most. A 54-year-old single mother from Harlem, she is a cancer survivor three times over. But she almost wasn’t.
A childhood cancer survivor, in 2015 Peterson was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive and difficult-to-treat cancer with a high likelihood of coming back. To treat it she had chemotherapy and a voluntary double mastectomy (both breasts were removed surgically). In 2017, her cancer came back, and she was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer with tumors in her lungs, pelvis, ribs and spine.
A fighting chance
“I remember it like yesterday. My oncologist couldn’t look at me. I knew what she was going to tell me. My cancer had spread. But I wasn’t giving up. I wanted a plan,” explained Peterson.
Her oncologist recommended that she start a traditional treatment approach, but she wanted something more personalized. Peterson had read about different types of cancer treatments, including targeted therapies, which target specific mutations in the cancer’s DNA, and immunotherapies, which use a person’s own immune cells to fight their cancer. She wanted to learn more about her disease to help find out if one of these therapy options, also called precision medicines, might focus on the DNA mutations in her own cancer.
“I really researched my disease,” said Peterson. “And I wanted something more thoughtful than the traditional treatment plan. I wanted a plan based on science and facts specific to my cancer.”
Peterson learned that genomic testing, a type of biomarker testing, identifies DNA changes within the tumor and uses that information to help match patients to potential options for targeted therapies, immunotherapies or clinical trials. This can be a tool for unlocking a more personalized treatment approach that might work better for a person’s particular cancer.
Peterson requested a genomic test, but her doctor thought it wasn’t yet necessary. “My doctor said we should try traditional therapies first, but without a genomic test, how could we know if these therapies would work? And then we’d be wasting time. That’s when I knew I needed a second opinion. I found a new oncologist who agreed I should have genomic testing done. There were no FDA-approved treatments for me based on my biomarkers, but the results of my test helped me get into a clinical trial.”
Peterson’s response was remarkable. After eight weeks in a clinical trial with two immunotherapy drugs, more than 70 percent of her tumors had shrunk. Now two years later, she has completed the clinical trial and no longer has tumors in her lungs, ribs and spine.
“According to my oncologist, something very special had happened. I’m beyond grateful for the test that helped me get to the right treatment,” explained Peterson.
Karen’s advice for advanced cancer patients
Now that Peterson can focus on a future, she wants to help others facing a similar diagnosis. “Those with advanced cancer often ask me for advice, and these are the tips I share:
1: Get informed. Learning more about your type of cancer, getting informed and working with your doctor to develop a care plan will empower you. Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion.
2: Seek support. At times it may feel like it, but you’re not alone. There are so many resources out there. It’s OK to ask for help and trust me when I say that support is essential.
3: Ask your doctor if a comprehensive genomic test could help inform your treatment plan. Without a genomic test, it may be more difficult — if not, in some cases, impossible — to know which of the new advances in cancer medicine may be right for you. Ask your doctor if a comprehensive genomic test could better inform your treatment plan.”
As part of her mission to help others, Peterson has worked with leading advocacy organizations, including the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance (MBCA), which recently launched a new resource.
“The organizational and individual members of the MBCA are collectively working to transform and improve the lives of those with metastatic breast cancer,” said Shirley Mertz, Chair, MBCA. “With that in mind, we released MBC Connect, a mobile-friendly, patient experience app designed to advance metastatic breast cancer research which will soon link patients in the U.S. with potential clinical trials, allowing them to explore future treatment options.”
Dr. Neil M. Iyengar, a medical oncologist and clinical-translational researcher, helped to develop MBC Connect. “There are an estimated 155,000 men and women living with metastatic breast cancer in the United States,” Iyengar shared. “They are a strong community with a desire to educate themselves and others about what causes unique cancers to grow, and how genomic information can be used in treatment plans to impact their disease. Not only does genomic testing offer patients and their doctors information to guide treatment plans, it also provides insights that help drive research and therapy advancements for future patients.”
To learn more about Peterson’s story and comprehensive genomic testing, visit TestingMyCancer.com.
Editor’s note: Consult with your doctor for more information about genomic testing. Peterson’s experience with genomic testing is unique to her. Many advanced cancer patients who receive genomic testing may not be matched to a therapy or clinical trial option based on their genomic profile, and treatment outcomes will vary based on cancer type and unique genomic profile. However, getting a comprehensive genomic test may help your doctor make an informed treatment decision.