Margaret Taylor thought she had reached the end of her breast cancer journey.
Hers was a textbook case in many ways — she discovered a lump on her breast in 2019, was diagnosed with cancer, and was treated with chemotherapy prior to surgery to remove the tumor. After nine months of treatment, which included post-surgery radiation, her doctor pronounced her cancer-free.
Then she went to Florida for a vacation.
“All of a sudden, every time I walked on the beach, I was totally out of breath,” says Taylor, 68, who lives in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver. “I thought it was my asthma. I saw my doctor, and he changed my prescription, but I wasn’t getting any better. So they did an X-ray, and that’s when they found it.”
A cancer returns and a clinical trial is joined
The breast cancer the doctors had thought was gone was back, and it had spread to Taylor’s lungs, lymph nodes, and other parts of her body.
“It was really, really disappointing, but there’s nothing you can do,” Taylor says.
She returned to the University of Colorado Cancer Center for treatment, though her original doctor — whom Taylor, a die-hard Denver Broncos fan, knew because their season tickets were just a row apart — had moved on. That cancer doctor had referred Taylor to CU Cancer Center member Jennifer Diamond, MD, who moved quickly to get Taylor enrolled in a clinical trial — a study of a new medication or treatment in humans before it is approved for widespread use.
“In the Women's Cancer Developmental Therapeutics Program at the CU Cancer Center, we have a nurse navigator who is specifically there to support patients with metastatic breast cancer and to look for clinical trials when they first are scheduled for a new patient appointment,” says Diamond, associate professor of medical oncology in the CU Department of Medicine.
“We want to expedite things so the clinic team and the research team know what clinical trials a potential patient could be eligible for so that we can get things going quickly and to try to make it easier for providers in the community to refer patients in. We also have a website where patients can refer themselves.”
Harder to treat, better to study
Because Taylor’s cancer is “triple negative” — meaning it doesn’t express the three markers targeted by hormonal and HER2-directed therapies— it was harder to treat, Diamond says.
“Triple-negative breast cancer is an aggressive type of breast cancer with a high risk of early recurrence,” Diamond says. “Most recurrences are in the first three to five years after treatment for early-stage disease, and metastatic recurrence in the lungs and the brain are very common. This cancer continues to be an area of unmet need for new targeted therapies.”
The good news for Taylor was that her triple-negative breast cancer also qualified her for a clinical trial looking to see if a new combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy would keep cancers like hers at bay.
“Her cancer didn't have the markers that predict response to pembrolizumab (Keytruda), which is an immunotherapy,” Diamond says. “The standard treatment would be chemotherapy alone, but in this trial, she was eligible to get two different immunotherapy drugs, which worked really well.”
So well, in fact, that after 18 months of regular infusions, Taylor is again cancer-free. She made it to all but one of the Broncos’ home games this season.
“She's had a fantastic response,” Diamond says. “She has a few lymph nodes that we're still following, but there's no sign of active cancer in her lungs anymore.”
Taylor is but one example of a CU Cancer Center patient who has benefited by being part of a clinical trial. Diamond is grateful to the patients who participate in the trials as well as the research coordinators in the cancer center’s Cancer Clinical Trials Office who help connect patients to appropriate trials. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to offer studies to patients,” Diamond says.
Her disease is “treatable, but not curable,” Taylor says, meaning she will keep receiving infusions three out of every four weeks for as long as the medicine keeps working. The procedure is a hassle, she says, but the clinic staff makes it more than bearable.
“The nurses at the infusion center are amazing,” she says. “They walk on water, in my opinion. I'm never scared to go in, and they take really good care of me. Even the ones who are super quiet are really nice. They're totally focused on you, even though they have other patients they’re seeing. It's a very positive experience.”
Taylor has similar praise for Diamond, who conducts tests and examines Taylor monthly to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned.
“She is just the sweetest. I feel like she genuinely cares about me, and that's really important,” Taylor says. “The last time I was there, I was getting a bottle of water out of the machine, and I heard all these people talking behind me. I turned around, and I saw her, and immediately she said, ‘Hi, Margaret. How are you?’ She had this whole group of people around her, and she still took the time to say hi to me. You don't find that with a lot of doctors, because they're so busy. I feel safe with her.”
Gratitude and participation
And of course Taylor is grateful to Diamond for putting on her on the clinical trial that may well have saved her life — and will save the lives of other women with cancers like hers if it is eventually approved as a result of the trial she’s on.
“I think it's awesome that they do these clinical trials,” she says. “Being able to be part of these studies, and being able to help, is so important. I hope they never stop doing it. I feel very fortunate that I was referred to Dr. Diamond, and that I was referred before I had the recurrence. I think it's one of those things that’s meant to be.”
Featured image: Margaret Taylor, second from left, with her son Kameron, her son JP, and her daughter-in-law Aileen.