By Kale Williams
Eva Joseph first found out she had breast cancer in 2002. She underwent chemotherapy, had radiation treatments and a mastectomy, and the side effects were brutal. She lost her hair and gained weight from the steroids included in her treatment.
After all that, however, she was declared cancer-free.
Then, in 2014, the now 72-year-old West Linn resident began having difficulty breathing. The cancer had returned, this time in her lungs and sternum.
But this time her treatment options were different.
Joseph was accepted into a clinical trial at Providence for a new immunotherapy drug that has proved effective in treating her deadly type of breast cancer. Now, the general public will have access to the drug in a major development for treating end-stage breast cancer.
It’s an exciting breakthrough, said Alison Conlin, a medical oncologist at the Providence Cancer Institute, where some of the trials took place.
“Immunotherapy is finally an option for people with breast cancer,” Conklin said. “It’s less toxic and there are less side effects.”
The Food and Drug Administration last week gave early approval to the drug to be used in breast cancer treatment for the general public.
In 2015, Joseph was enrolled in a clinical trial of an immunotherapy drug called atezolizumab, marketed under the name Tcentriq. Immunotherapy drugs boost the body’s natural ability to fight cancer.
The drug had been used to treat other forms of cancer for years, but Joseph’s trial was among the first where it was used in concert with chemotherapy to specifically treat some of the deadliest types of breast cancer.
The drug will be used for people with stage four, triple negative breast cancer, Conlin said, one of the deadliest types. Those diagnosed with that type of cancer are usually given about 18 months to live, but with the new immunotherapy, Conlin said, some patients were living for two years with a dramatically improved quality of life.
Joseph is approaching four years on the treatment and, though she lost her hair again, she said she feels great, noting that the difference between her first round with cancer and her most recent bout were “night and day.”
“I feel pretty strong,” she said by phone while undergoing treatment in Portland.
The cancer in her lungs has shrunk so much that doctors need special tools to find it in X-rays. The disease will always be present in her bones, she said, but it’s stopped progressing, which is the best she could hope for.
“Basically, I’m healthy,” she said.