My sister Holly was diagnosed with HER 2 positive breast cancer in August 2022, at the age of 64. This aggressive cancer requires a course of chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy, then radiation. She also started Herceptin with her first chemo infusion. This form of breast cancer was not survivable until Herceptin came on the market about 15 years ago. She will continue to take Herceptin for a year. With all of that, she has a 95% survival/cure prognosis. Her tumor measured a little less than 2 centimeters at diagnosis. So, they caught it fairly early, calling it stage 2.
Holly started her chemo three weeks after her initial diagnosis. She was to get an infusion every three weeks for six total infusions. They test her blood two days before each infusion. Her white cells, platelets, and neutrophiles all have to meet a minimum in order for her to qualify for the infusion. As I write this, Holly was able to stay on schedule for all six of her infusions, the last of which was in December!
There have been many surprises/learnings through this process. Holly feels pretty much OK the day of the infusion, and for several days after. If the infusion is Day 1, it is about Day 5 when she starts to feel the worst. Fatigue, hair loss, and nausea are expected. The other symptoms are more odd and unexpected. She sometimes gets quickly traveling cramps, has an aversion to or cannot taste many foods, has partially blocked tear ducts (which could become permanent), and many other odd side effects. It even messes with your fingernails, which can detach entirely from the skin, a condition which can sometimes be permanent. They all remind us that she is being poisoned, and the goal is to kill the cancer before the patient. While it has been no cake walk, Holly has done remarkably well with her chemo, and we are all very grateful and hopeful for the best.
Before Holly started her treatment, I had never heard of neutrophiles. They are a necessary type of white cell for which normal counts start at about 2,500. When she got her first infusion, they said nothing to her about neutrophiles and the danger of them going too low. On about day 10, Holly was feeling very weak and took herself to the emergency room. They tested her and found her neutrophiles were near zero. They gave her a shot and had her come back a day later for another that brought them way back up. But, why in the world did they not tell her of the possibility? The likely answer is money.
We are confident that Holly is going to get through this and live many more years. But, cancer treatment takes a toll. Had Holly not been otherwise very healthy and strong, this would have been harder. And, it is far from over. Her one complaint now: She thought a silver lining would be that she would lose some weight, and she has hardly lost any. Ach, most people gain it all back anyway.
We watched a movie about the development of Herceptin that is very educational about the development of any drug. Look for Living Proof with Harry Connick Jr.
The patient can take one person in with them when they get each infusion. Holly is very loved by her family and her friends and had many options for people to go with her. I am her only sister, and I didn’t go until the 5th infusion, although that is partly because I live four hours away. It is important, but not required, that you have someone with you. We found out the importance of this when we were able to help her roommate at my visit. No one should be alone!
Submitted by Jill Ward, Board Member