Nearly 2 million women globally are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, amounting to 25% of all cancers in women. Breasts—life-giving symbols of fertility—are also potential hosts to the fifth deadliest cancer worldwide.
The survival rate for metastatic breast cancer, which happens when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, is only 22%.
But this week, scientists found something that could dramatically change how breast cancer is treated forever. For the first time in world history, a woman with advanced stage breast cancer was “cured” thanks to an experimental new therapy.
Judy Perkins, a 52-year-old engineer and mother-of-two from Florida, was given three months to live after several rounds of chemotherapy failed to keep the cancer from spreading to the rest of her body.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) states that the five-year survival rate after diagnosis for people with stage 4 breast cancer is 22 percent.
“My condition deteriorated a lot towards the end, and I had a tumor pressing on a nerve, which meant I spent my time trying not to move at all to avoid pain shooting down my arm,” Perkins told The Guardian. “I had given up fighting.”
She was then enrolled at the US National Cancer Institute for a new kind of immunotherapy. The treatment used a process called adoptive cell transfer to remove one of the tumors from Perkins’s body and locate all the friendly T cells that were still able to recognize harmful cancer cells.
Once the T cells were identified, they were extracted and multiplied until the scientists had an army of 90 billion cancer-fighting cells which they were then able to inject back into Perkins.
Within weeks, Perkins literally felt her tumors shrinking; she even celebrated by going on a 40-mile hike – and now, two years after the treatment, she is still cancer-free.
Traditionally, the more mutations that cancer cells have, the easier the immune cells of the body can track and combat them. Cancers like ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, and breast cancer are difficult for the body to respond to because they have few mutations, thus making it more difficult for the body to detect the cancerous cells amid the healthy cells. This fact makes the new T-cell treatment even more impressive.
“I was very skeptical about whether this treatment would work because I knew the odds were not really great. But within two weeks I could feel the tumors in my chest wall shrinking and I started to feel better,” Perkins told The Telegraph. “It feels miraculous and I am beyond amazed that I have now been free of cancer for two years.
“Experts may call it ‘extended remission’ but I call it a cure,” she added.
Overall, black/non-Hispanic black women have a slightly lower rate of breast cancer compared to white/non-Hispanic white women. But among breast cancers, non-Hispanic black women have a higher mortality rate and die sooner than any other ethnic group.
There are differences when looking by age: