Wendie den Brok was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer on May 13, 2005. She remembers the date clearly because it was the same day she was accepted to medical school.
“The emotions I experienced that day were the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and everything in between,” says Wendie who knew straight away that this particular type of cancer was aggressive.
She went through the whole gamut of treatment; surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Once her treatments were over, she was keen to move on and enroll in medical school.
Unfortunately, she was soon faced with a major hurdle.
“Within one year my cancer was back -I had stage IV disease,” Wendie shares. It wasn’t good news. Triple negative breast cancer is known to be the deadliest form of breast cancer.
“This time the chemotherapy and radiation therapy were palliative,” she says.
The treatment options were limited and her disease was progressing. Wendie’s oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency had one more option, a combination of chemotherapy that isn’t typically used to treat breast cancer but a few studies had shown it could be effective.
Wendie recalls, “I had nothing to lose.”
The trial drug combination worked. It was her magic bullet and today she is very thankful that her cancer is stable.
However, she often wonders why her cancer finally responded while other patients’ did not?
Major breast cancer breakthroughs from the BC Cancer Agency are helping to answer that question. A recent discovery by Dr. Sam Aparicio, head of breast cancer research at the BC Cancer Agency, and his team revealed that triple negative breast cancer is not one distinct single disease, but an extremely complex and evolved tumour.
“We found that these cancers are operating with the complexity of a mini ecosystem, and their evolution before diagnosis may explain the ability to evade current therapies,” Dr. Aparicio explains. “What’s extremely motivating is the opportunity to now design clinical trials for patients with triple negative breast cancer so we can explore patient responses to treatment at the genetic level and look at ways to improve treatments.”
On the heels of this finding, Dr. Aparicio, Dr. Sohrab Shah and colleagues from Cancer Research UK announced another momentous scientific breakthrough from the largest gene study of breast cancer ever performed.
The team has reclassified breast cancer into 10 completely new categories, providing clinicians with brand new information that will help to more accurately predict survival in women with all forms of breast cancer and better tailor treatment to each patient.
“This is a major step forward in building the genetic encyclopedia of breast cancer and in the process we’ve learned there are many more subtypes of breast cancer than we imagined,” says Dr. Aparicio. “It also gives us important clues about some of the breast cancer subtypes that have a higher tendency to relapse.”
Both studies were made possible thanks to support from BC Cancer Foundation donors and have been published in the prestigious journal Nature.
As a breast cancer survivor, Wendie is thrilled with the advancements. “This discovery is like the lifting of a dark, dark cloud. I and many others with this disease, as well as the women who will be diagnosed in the future, can take profound comfort in knowing that should future treatment be required, oncologists will have a deeper understanding of what they are treating.”
“The days of uniform therapy for triple negative breast cancer are becoming a thing of the past and that means hope for a future. And that is really worth celebrating!” Wendie says.