When Gerri Speer learned she had breast cancer in July 2009, she thought she had heard the worst. She hadn’t. A week later, her surgeon told her she had an aggressive subtype called triple negative breast cancer, which had a high recurrence rate and a poor overall prognosis.
Patients with triple negative have tumors that lack three hormone receptors — estrogen, progesterone and HER-2 — which are used to determine the treatment for other forms of breast cancer. As a result, treatments that target one or more of these receptors are not effective for triple negative.
“After first hearing that I had breast cancer, I set out to learn as much as possible about it, arming myself with knowledge about the different types, the most current treatments, the odds of recovery and the changes I’d need to make as I prepared to face this challenge,” Gerri recalled.
“When I learned that I had triple negative, my heart hit the floor,” she said. “From what I knew, there seemed very little room for optimism.”
But her medical team at the OSUCCC – James, led by surgical oncologist William Farrar, MD, offered hope by suggesting she enter a clinical trial for patients with aggressive breast cancer.
Gerri thought about it and simultaneously launched a feverish campaign to find the best possible treatment option anywhere in the nation.
“After phone calls and emails to specialists in triple negative breast cancer at other well-known cancer hospitals, I had a solid roadmap for my cancer journey,” she said. “I immediately had sets of X-rays, pathology and lab reports sent off for second and third opinions regarding treatment options. Within days, I had scheduled interviews with leading oncologists at these hospitals.”
Following a frenzied week of travel and testing, she evaluated her choices.
“Considering what I had learned, it became evident that the very best program for me was the clinical trial at the OSUCCC – James,” she recalls. “To me, entering that clinical trial was an obvious choice. I knew I would be monitored very closely and that I needed the most aggressive therapy for my form of cancer.”
In August 2009, she entered a phase II neoadjuvant (presurgical) clinical trial that involved three chemotherapeutic experimental drugs: nanoparticle albumin-bound paclitaxel (nab-P) along with carboplatin and bevacizumab.
The trial, designed for women with clinical stages II-III HER2-negative breast cancer, was led by principal investigator Ewa Mrozek, MD, a breast cancer specialist and researcher at Ohio State.
“Bevacizumab and carboplatin have been shown to improve outcomes when added to taxanes in patients with metastatic breast cancer,” Dr. Mrozek said. “Nab-P has demonstrated superior efficacy and safety compared with paclitaxel or docetaxel in patients with metastatic breast cancer. We hypothesized that adding bevacizumab to neoadjuvant chemotherapy with weekly nab-P and carboplatin would increase the rates of pathologic complete response.”
Dr. Mrozek said 33 women were enrolled in the study, including 12 with triple negative breast cancer. Of those 12, six — including Gerri — had a complete pathologic response, meaning no cancer could be detected in the breast and lymph nodes at the time of breast surgery.
Gerri remembers the six months of her treatment regimen as a difficult time during which she experienced grueling side effects, but she was determined to remain strong.
“Like others, I did my best to maintain a positive attitude and carry on,” she said. “My goal was to never miss a treatment. Even though it was extremely difficult, deep in my heart, I never wanted to not go. One Tuesday, I was so physically ill that my oncologist suggested I take a break. I absolutely refused. In my mind, every treatment meant that I was getting exactly what I needed, even though my body rebelled.”
Her persistence paid off with a complete response, but many more months of treatments lay ahead. She underwent eight weeks of radiation therapy, followed by six more months of chemotherapy with bevacizumab. Her last treatment was in October 2010. For the next three years, her treatment team monitored her and required check-in appointments every three months.
Gerri recommends that every breast cancer patient enroll in a clinical trial. “I hope more women will realize that a cure for breast cancer will never be found unless we take advantage of the opportunity to participate in clinical trials.”
Gerri has also established the Geraldine Dixon Speer Triple Negative Breast Cancer Fund at The Columbus Foundation to raise money for researching this disease at the OSUCCC – James. Besides her initial donation, she donates part of the annual profits from her business, Corporate Interior Concepts in Grandview, Ohio, to the fund.
In addition, for a short time after treatment, she volunteered at the OSUCCC – James, reaching out to other cancer patients. “I volunteered because I believe in giving back,” she said. “I encountered a lot of other women with triple negative and told them, ‘I got out of that chair and you can too.’”
“Like all cancer patients, I have to live with the possibility that my cancer will one day return,” she adds, “but I’m at peace with it. I’ve learned to accept whatever comes my way. My hope is that the research being conducted at the OSUCCC – James and other leading research hospitals will lead to a cure for triple negative breast cancer.”