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New trial gives hope to terminal cancer patients

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Breast cancer is far too common. In fact, one in eight women will be diagnosed with the disease in her lifetime. Many will be treated with chemotherapy and radiation, giving them a strong chance of survival, but about 30%, more than 75,000 each year, will face a metastasized cancer that isn't curable.

Amanda Peterson faces this deadly diagnosis. At the age of 37, she found a lump in her breast that turned out to be cancer. She had a bilateral mastectomy and six rounds of chemo. Eighteen months after her initial diagnosis, something didn't feel right, and Amanda went to see her doctor. The cancer had spread to her bones and liverstage 4-terminal.

"I had just started allowing myself to plan for the future. When I received that second diagnosis, that metastatic diagnosis, I stopped planning," says Amanda. "You feel hopeless. You absolutely feel hopeless."

Alana Welm, PhD, a Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) investigator, says once breast cancer spreads to different organs, it's very difficult to treat. Dr. Welm says, "Cancer is a very sneaky, very smart disease. Cancer cells are constantly evolving, which is why we have a big problem of therapy resistance."

At HCI, researchers look for ways to prevent diagnoses like Amanda's, and they are making progress. Dr. Welm's research team recently discovered a protein that helps cancer spread. They are testing a new drug that turns off that protein and helps boost the immune system to fight the cancer.

A pilot study with breast cancer patients will begin within the next year, and Amanda hopes to be part of that clinical trial. She says it's not just for her own health, but for her kids'. "I have a daughter, and I hope that she never has to do this," Amanda says. "I want them to know more, to be able to diagnose cancer and treat it better."

Amanda is grateful for the emphasis placed on early diagnosis of cancer, but she wishes more research were being done for terminal patients. "I'm worth fighting for. I'm worth saving. I would like to see more funding given to stage 4 patients," she says. "My hope is that they'll come up with something great, and I'll be here to try it."

She says her latest scan came out great, but that doesn't change her diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. For now, she's taking each day as it comes and hoping she'll get to be part of some family milestones. Amanda says, "I think it would be an absolute miracle to see my kids graduate. That's a long way off, but I still have hope."

Learn more about Dr. Welm's research.

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