When Stacy Hanson learned she was pregnant at 43, she was thrilled. But just after her daughter turned 2, she got news no mom wants to hear. She had breast cancer.
Stacy remembers the day she found the lump. It was in July 2014. Stacy, the chief client officer at an insurance services firm, was in a meeting when she felt it. "My bra had moved and was uncomfortable. When I adjusted it, I felt something hard," recalls the Jacksonville, Florida, resident.
Stacy called her gynecologist for an appointment. "He didn't think it was anything, though," Stacy says. "He was sure it wasn't cancer."
Convincing herself it was no big deal, Stacy went alone for the mammogram and the ultrasound that followed. The results of those tests looked suspicious, and a biopsy revealed the truth. At 45, Stacy had breast cancer. That began Stacy's quest to get rid of her disease for good. The first place that quest led her was Mayo Clinic.
"I asked around, 'Who is the best breast surgeon in town?'" Stacy says. The answer she came to was Sarah McLaughlin, M.D., director of the Robert and Monica Jacoby Center for Breast Health at Mayo Clinic's Florida campus. That clinched her decision to come to Mayo Clinic.
In addition to Dr. McLaughlin, Stacy's medical team grew to include oncologist Gerardo Colon-Otero, M.D., radiation oncologist Laura Vallow, M.D., plastic and reconstructive surgeon Sarvam TerKonda, M.D., and gynecologic oncologist Tri Dinh, M.D.
"They are all truly impressive. I can't speak more highly of them," Stacy says of the doctors who cared for her.
As part of her care, Stacy underwent genetic testing, and she learned she was positive for BRCA1 — a gene that increases a person's risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and colon cancer. Stacy completed eight rounds of chemotherapy to shrink her tumor before undergoing a double mastectomy. Due to her genetics, Stacy also opted to have her ovaries removed. She then began daily radiation therapy.
"It was amazing the way Mayo coordinated my care, so I had one surgery instead of three," Stacy says, noting that her mastectomy, ovary removal and the first stage of her breast reconstruction were done at the same time.
Just as Stacy was beginning to settle back in to life with her toddler, she felt another lump. This one was on her back. It was January 2017, and Stacy mentioned it to Dr. Colon-Otero at her next follow-up visit. He noticed her tumor markers were rising, so he sent Stacy for a positron emissions tomography scan, also called a PET scan.
The test showed that the spot on her back was fatty tissue. But there was more. The PET scan revealed a tumor on Stacy's liver. The breast cancer had spread.
Stacy's situation was unique in that her tumor type had changed. With her recurrence, Stacy was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, a more aggressive type of breast cancer that affects about 20 percent of women who have the disease. "Unfortunately for most patients with triple-negative breast cancer, prognosis is poor, as there are no targeted therapies available," Dr. Colon-Otero says.
"It was not easy to get the diagnosis again," says Stacy. "But Dr. Colon was very accessible and took time to explain to us what it meant — having triple-negative breast cancer, a stage 4 diagnosis — and what options were out there."
But it was a phone call that came at 9 p.m. one evening that changed the course of Stacy's life. "Dr. Colon called and talked to us about research he had done on a clinical trial he believed was the best option for me."
While Mayo Clinic Cancer Center is designated by the National Cancer Institute as a comprehensive cancer center and has robust cancer research programs, there was one challenge. The clinical trial that Dr. Colon-Otero identified was not yet available at Mayo Clinic, although eventually it would be. At first, Stacy would have to travel to Boston to participate. From March through August 2017, that's what she did.
Every three weeks Stacy received an immunotherapy agent and medication called a PARP inhibitor. PARP is a type of protein that helps repair damaged DNA in cancer cells as they divide. PARP inhibitors block the protein from functioning, so cancer cells die. Research has shown PARP inhibitors are particularly beneficial for patients who are BRCA positive.
When the trial opened at Mayo Clinic, Stacy began receiving her treatment in Jacksonville. Since then, she continues to receive infusions every three weeks and has scans every three months. The results have been encouraging.
"My last scans showed my tumor had reduced 96 percent. I'm doing amazing," she says. "Of course there are side effects, but nothing that I can't handle and live my life."
Now Stacy is on a mission to educate others about breast cancer and help raise awareness and funds for cancer research. To that end, she's serving as a local event chair for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer.
"There is no cure for stage 4, and that has to change," Stacy says. "I want to see a cure for stage 4 cancer in my lifetime. And that takes research and funds to fund the research."
Stacy adds that she is thrilled to know Mayo Clinic is working on new therapies that may one day be available to her.
"My daughter has a 50-50 chance of having the BRCA gene. But I want to believe by the time Lucy has to worry about it, it won't matter because there will be a cure," she says. "And I'm going to do everything in my power to make that happen."
In the meantime, Stacy savors each moment with her family and is hopeful about making plans for the future.
"When I was first diagnosed, I didn't think I would be around to see my daughter start kindergarten. Now she has started first grade," Stacy says. "Dr. Colon, who was upfront about diagnosis and prognosis, and hopeful about many new medical options available to me, has said that now, based on where I'm at today, I could be here for another 40 more years."
Tags: breast cancer, Cancer, clinical trials, Dr. Gerardo Colon-Otero, Dr. Laura Vallow, Dr. Sarah McLaughlin, Dr. Sarvam TerKonda, Dr. Tri Dinh, Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, MayoClinicFL, Robert and Monica Jacoby Center for Breast Health