Well, not officially, but the initial studies sure look promising.
Front-page news today in Houston declares that researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center right here in my fine city have good things to say about results from an experimental vaccine. The researchers are hailing the potential vaccine as “a promising developement in an emerging field in cancer care.”
Sounds mighty good to me.
Much has been written on the blogosphere about finding a cure — or, more accurately, the utter lack of progress in finding a cure — for this disease that fells one in eight women in the United States each year. The statistics are scary, and you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone who’s been touched by breast cancer. And by “touched by” I mean gobsmacked by. It’s a vicious, insidious, relentless disease, and in the decades of research, precious little progress has been made in finding a way to eradicate breast cancer.
All of that could change, however, with this potential vaccine.
Its focus is significantly reducing breast cancer recurrence. So it won’t eradicate the disease itself, but may (hopefully, please please please, fingers crossed, with sugar and a cherry on top) prevent women who have had BC from suffering a recurrence. Once BC comes back, no matter what stage it initially was or how effective the treatments were, you proceed straight to Stage IV and are considered incurable. That’s not to say the cancer can’t be managed, because it can, but it will never be cured. And therein lies the promise of this new potential vaccine.
I’ve gotten to know many Stage IV BC gals in the blogosphere, and their struggle is rough, to say the least. Ongoing treatment, escalating side-effects and financial burdens, and hopelessness are common in their fight. Not to mention mortality. Up front and in your face with Stage IV BC is mortality, in sharper focus and with a shorter shelf-life than ever imagined.
As one of the “lucky ones” in the cancer world considering my type of BC is lazy, slow-growing, and non-aggressive (touch wood here for good measure), I have a low recurrence rate. At least according to the charts and graphs and stats. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about it every single day, fear it and dread it. Even though I’m “lucky” and for all intents & purposes my cancer is gone, as I’ve learned from the brave cancerchicks who’ve gone boldly into the night before me, it’s never over, and the fear of recurrence is always there.
That’s where Dr Elizabeth Mittendorf comes in. She’s a professor of oncology at M.D. Anderson and this study’s chief investigator. She says that cancer researchers such as herself are “in the dawn of a new era” as they manipulate the immune system to recognize cancer cells and prevent or treat the disease.
The potential vaccine, called AE37, trains the body’s immune system to attack the infamous HER2 protein, which helps tumors grow and which is present in the vast majority of BC. One of the most important factors in a BC diagnosis is whether the cancer is HER2 positive or HER2 negative. Upon diagnosis, one waits to hear that HER2 status. HER2 positive breast cancers tend to be more aggressive and harder to treat. The hope with AE37 is that the proteins that make up HER2 will be taken down. Dr Mittendorf says, “If some rogue tumor cell is floating around, AE37 can recognize it and take care of it before it can settle into bone or other parts of the body. It’ll teach the T cells to recognize that HER2 protein. So the thought would be that if the T cells were educated in this way, if the tumor cell were to come back, the immune system could identify it, attack it and destroy it before the patient would have, as we see, a measurable recurrence.”
The beauty of AE37 is that it may be helpful in fighting other types of cancer as well. Because HER2 proteins occur in prostate, ovarian, and gastric cancers as well as in breast cancers, AE37 has a lot of potential across the board. For “lucky” breast cancer gals who are HER2 negative, like me, the potential vaccine may still be helpful. Dr Mittendorf is excited that the vaccine seems to reduce the risk of recurrent breast cancer in women who had both high and low levels of HER2. Mittendorf and her team studied 201 patients whose average age was 50 and who had previously had BC but who are currently cancer-free. Half of them received the vaccine, while the other half did not, and the initial results are encouraging. Mittendorf says, “We projected that breast cancer would come back for 10.3 percent of the women who got the vaccine compared with 18 percent of the women who had not been vaccinated. That translates to a 43 percent reduced risk of recurrent breast cancer.”
While AE37 won’t replace the traditional treatments — mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation — it could become part of standard care and would likely work in combination with the weapons currently used against the disease. The vaccine is given once a month for 6 months and then every 6 months for 3 years. While AE37 needs some fine-tuning, and a longer-term study would yield more information into its potential, this is very good, extremely hopeful news for those of us in the BC trenches. The fact that it may be able to cut recurrence rates nearly in half makes me giddy. The fact that this important research is taking place in my city is an added bonus. Kinda makes me want to run on down to Anderson and deliver some fresh-baked cookies to Mittendorf and her team. Just a little token of my appreciation for all their hard work. Should I make chocolate chip or snickerdoodles? In this case, I think I’ll make both.
I’ve been a pretty good girl this year. I’ve smiled at fussy babies in checkout lines at HEB. I did my time at the grade-school class parties (not my scene, to say the least). I called the collection agency back — yes, I really did — when they left me a message saying I owed money on a past-due hospital bill that my insurance company says has been paid. I donated nearly-new clothes & home goods to charities multiple times. I helped out with the school fundraiser, even though I really, really, didn’t want to. I’ve said please and thank you and bring my own bags. I was a big girl and good sport about all the trips and baseball games I missed this past summer.
And while we’re on the topic of this past summer, dear Santa, do ya remember all the hell I went through? It all started on April 27, 2010, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Talk about an “aha” moment. The timeline quickly unfolded like this: the rest of April and first part of May were consumed with tests, tests, and more tests: BRAC analysis, CT scans, x-rays, PET scan, bone scans and MRI. In case that’s not enough acronyms for ya, there was also the L-Dex and then the genomic typing of ER/PR positive and HER2 negative. More injections and blood draws than my poor left arm’s veins could keep up with (literally; there’s a permanent knot in the big vein). Countless appointments with the breast surgeon (Dr Dempsey, who is on the “nice” list) and plastic surgeon (Dr S, who may be on the naughty list), and 3 different oncologists.
Meanwhile, there was research to be done and crushing decisions to be made as I prepared for surgery. The phrase “life and death” took on a whole new meaning, sweet Santa. There’s a strange juxtaposition between packing school lunches and signing field trip permission slips while also filling out my medical directive and living will. I learned pretty fast how to act normal when everything around me had been turned upside down. I think, dear Santa, I also did a pretty good job of adjusting and adapting to the new normal. I think, fat man, I’m still doing a damn fine job of that. One quick look at my profile tells you that there most definitely is a new normal around here.
Santa baby, I was a good girl after the double mastectomy and the lymph node removal that left me battle-scarred and weary. I was an especially good girl in the face of the plethora of prescription drugs I could have used & abused. I was a diligent girl when it came to choosing green drink over Diet Coke, all-natural hormone-free yogurt over Blue Bell.
Santa, I was a brave and good girl when the nasty infection set up shop in my still-raw chest wall. I endured the 103-degree fevers, 22 days in the hospital, multiple tissue excisions and untold poking & prodding without much complaint. I missed the comforts of home, my dogs & my kids more than words can say, but I only cried twice. And even then, it was when no one else was around to see.
We don’t even need to recount the 18 days during which I was attached to the wound vac 24-7. I would really like, dear Santa, to permanently erase that memory from my grey matter, por favor. But I would like to remind you that I was a trouper during the home health days, and all those hours that were consumed with wound care and the administration of IV antibiotics. And while I’m at it, can I get a little shout-out for not killing Dr S, even though he probably deserved it?
Oh Santa, I do crave some credit for all the antibiotics I’ve endured — and continue to endure. From the Vancomycin to Cefapim, from the Cipro to the Zyvox, from the Biaxin to the Bactrim and Minocycline. Those last two will be part of my daily routine for a few months yet, but I’m already looking forward to the day in which I don’t have them on my kitchen counter anymore.
So Santa, how about we make a deal? I’ll set out all the milk & cookies you want in exchange for one little thing. All I want for Christmas is to have it easy for awhile.