A Unanderra woman who was told she had just months to live, is looking forward to a bright future thanks to a cancer drug that’s being labelled a ‘game changer’.
Jennifer Harris, 61, was given a dire prognosis when she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer – with secondary brain cancer – in June last year.
After surgery at Wollongong Hospital to remove two brain tumours, she was preparing for an arduous regime of chemotherapy. Then she was offered a place in a new immunotherapy drug trial.
Not only has it enabled her to escape the nasty side effects of chemo, the tumour on her lung has shrunk and her brain scans remain clear.
‘’My oncologist was very blunt – he told me I may not last till (last) Christmas because the cancer was aggressive and had already spread to my brain,’’ Ms Harris said.
‘’So I decided to take part in the trial and I haven’t looked back. I’m up to my 18th treatment, I’ve had no side effects, the tumour has shrunk and I’m living life.’’
The mother of three, and grandmother of two, was one of six Illawarra stage four lung cancer patients to take part in the trial of Keytruda at Southern Medical Day Care Centre in Wollongong.
Westmead Hospital is also involved in the trial which is running in 16 countries. The results, said Wollongong oncologist Dr Ali Tafreshi, have been ‘’extraordinary’’.
‘’Jennifer is among the first patients in the world to benefit from this treatment,’’ he said. ‘’The prognosis of a patient with secondary brain cancer from lung cancer is poor – maybe just a few months. But after Jennifer’s surgery we started her on Keytruda and she’s had an amazing response. We’ve had amazing experiences with all the local patients.’’
Dr Tafreshi said the groundbreaking results of the global trial were presented this week at a medical conference in Copenhagen.
‘’The trial started two years ago with a group of patients with a new diagnosis of stage four non small cell lung cancer with a specific marker (PD-1),’’ he said. ‘’This marker helps the tumour cells hide from the immune system, but this drug takes the brakes off the immune system allowing it to attack the cancer and kill it.
‘’The trial found the drug prevented cancer from spreading in almost half the patients at 12 months, making it three times more effective than chemotherapy.’’
Dr Tafreshi said the results made it a ‘’game changer’’: ‘’As well as improving survival rates, it’s also improving these patients’ quality of life.’’
It’s one of a number of drug trials at the Wollongong centre, run by Professor Philip Clingan. ‘’It’s critical to try and improve local cancer patients’ outcomes by involving them in cutting-edge clinical trials,’’ Dr Tafreshi said.
‘’It enables them to have free access to new treatments that are otherwise not available, or are very expensive.’’
He said Keytruda – the commercial name for the drug Pembrolizumab – had already proven successful with melanoma patients, and may now be trialed further with breast and prostate cancer patients.