Hope for harmful diagnosis: Dana Farber working on improving treatment for metastatic breast cancer

BOSTON — It was a day in March of 2014 that Abigail Myers can’t forget.

The Belmont resident and mother of a 15-month-old son woke up feeling a soreness in her chest, and a large lump. When she was diagnosed with triple-positive breast cancer, she and her husband sought a second opinion at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

What followed was surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone replacement therapy. Myers joined a support group for women finishing treatment and preparing to start the next phase of their lives. But as she was driving home from the group in May of 2015, a new pain got her attention.

“I thought I had pulled muscles in my neck and my leg because I couldn’t turn my head and couldn’t walk very well,” Myers said.

She soon learned her cancer had progressed to metastatic breast cancer, an incurable and terminal form of the disease. But as Dr. Erica Mayer from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute explained, new therapies are making longer survival possible.

“Despite metastatic breast cancer being an incurable stage of breast cancer, it is very treatable,” Mayer said. “And people diagnosed with breast cancer are doing better than they ever have before.”

Dr. Mayer is a Dana-Farber breast oncologist and director of clinical research in the breast oncology program, where she is leading research studies focused on novel therapies for the treatment of breast cancer. She says many of the improvements in metastatic breast cancer treatment stem from the research being done at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

One treatment being utilized now is antibody drug conjugates or ADCs.

“I think we could best describe it as a smart bomb approach,” explained Dr. Mayer.

The treatment uses monoclonal antibodies that are specific to targets on cancer cells to deliver chemotherapy to the cancer.

“The idea is that we use that antibody to selectively deliver the medicine right to the cancer cell, trying to introduce it into the cell in as high a concentration as we can, but limit the effect of that medicine in other parts of the body,” Dr. Mayer said.

The first ADC was approved for cancer about a decade ago. There are currently three that are approved to treat specific types of metastatic breast cancer, including the type Abigail Myers has.

Doctors hope these treatments will expand.

“We are launching research efforts now to try to bring these medicines earlier on in treatment in people who don’t have metastatic breast cancer in an effort to try to improve our cure rate and prevent metastatic breast cancer in the first place,” said Dr. Mayer.

Abigail Myers says she’s currently on her eighth line of treatment. According to her, she’s using an ADC called Enhertu for the second time. Myers says the drug slowed the progression of her disease the first time around, but she needed to stop the treatment due to side effects.

This time, she’s being treated at a lower dose. Myers says her treatment also involved a clinical trial in the past, which she was in for three years before it stopped working for her disease.

Myers says when she first started her fight, she hoped she’d be able to see her son graduate from college. Now, she wonders if she’ll see her ten-year-old son graduate middle school in a few years. An uncertainty she hopes will be eliminated for future metastatic breast cancer patients.

“I think that’s one of the great things about the many clinical trials that Dana has, is it’s an opportunity to test out new medicine to see if something is going to work and hopefully help future patients.”

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