Patti Hennessy, the 'Heartbeat' of the Miami Breast Cancer Conference, Will Share Her Journey with BRCA-Associated Cancers in Keynote Address
Patti and Mike Hennessy, Sr., visited Tuscany in spring 2017.
Patti Hennessy hadn’t even arrived home after surgery for ovarian cancer before she demanded that her sister get tested for the condition.
“We were in the car coming back from my debulking surgery, and I was adamant for her to make an appointment right then,” recalls Hennessy, who was 51 at the time, in 2011. “I could hear her doctor through the phone saying, ‘Oh, what’s the chance of you and your sister both having ovarian cancer?’”
It turned out that her sister, like her, had stage 2 disease.
Shortly after her diagnosis, Hennessy had learned that she carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, which predisposes women to ovarian and breast cancers. Hennessy has had both, multiple times, and is now living with metastatic cancer that is being treated as a chronic condition.
In a keynote address March 10 to a crowd of top oncologists, nurses and other health care practitioners during the 35th
Annual Miami Breast Cancer Conference®
, she’ll focus on the importance of BRCA gene testing in women diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancers.
“I speak to so many people who are diagnosed with breast cancer, and when I ask if they have the gene, they know nothing about it,” Hennessy says. “This gene can impact your entire family and generations to come. There are also preventive things you can do, if you have it, to avoid both breast and ovarian cancer.”
In her talk, Hennessy will also emphasize the importance of educating patients about their cancers and care options, and of the need for physicians to consider treatments that go beyond the standard of care, including targeted medicines and clinical trials.
Hennessy has had a long relationship with the Miami Breast Cancer Conference, which each year has an audience of over 1,000 doctors who treat about 25 percent of America’s breast cancer cases. Her husband, Mike Hennessy, Sr., is chairman and CEO of MJH Associates, Inc., whose Physicans’ Education Resource group has owned and managed the annual event since 2011.
Hennessy’s journey with cancer has made the annual conference very personal for the family; in a written statement, her husband and four grown children, all of whom are involved with the company, described her as the “heartbeat” of the gathering. That’s why Mike Hennessy considers it especially fitting that his wife will take the podium at the congress to share the wisdom she’s accumulated during her years as an informed decision-maker about her own care.
“I am so grateful for the advances made in cancer care over the last several years,” he says. “Because my wife has been able to benefit from these new treatments, together we have been able to see our family grow and will be celebrating our 35th
wedding anniversary this May.”
Surviving a Shock
Hennessy, who revels in her role as a grandmother, was living and loving her life when she was broadsided by her diagnosis with ovarian cancer.
Still, it wasn't entirely a surprise. She'd been experiencing symptoms for months.
In a column for CURE
® that encouraged readers to be vigilant in looking for signs of the disease, daughter Shannon Pulaski described what Hennessy went through: periods that were irregular and heavy, constipation, heartburn, weight gain and a distended belly. When her ob/gyn ignored those signs, new ones arose: frequent urination and lower back pain. The doctor dismissed the symptoms despite multiple visits until Hennessy finally saw her general practitioner, who diagnosed the cancer and sent the news back to the ob/gyn.
"I blamed myself a lot for not doing that sooner, because maybe it would have been caught when it was still stage 1," Hennessy says. "So, if you still don't feel well and they're still ignoring you, you need to see a different doctor."
For patients experiencing gynecologic problems who are past their childbearing years, Hennessy suggests visiting a gynecologist who doesn't deliver babies, "because, sometimes, the ob/gyn's office feels more like a baby factory. I was just dismissed as a perimenopausal woman, but if I'd gone to a doctor who was strictly a gynecologist, they might have been more familiar with my symptoms."
The message for doctors, she says, is clear: Listen carefully to what your patients are reporting. And through her story, she hopes, doctors will also hear how important it is to be compassionate when delivering news of a cancer, rather than cold and clinical, as her unapologetic ob/gyn was.
"I'm just going to tell it exactly as it happened," Hennessy says. "After hearing it, I believe the doctors will be able to draw their own conclusions and not do that to anyone."
Hennessy's first ovarian cancer was treated with debulking surgery that removed all visible tumor. The treatment was carboplatin and paclitaxel, she said, standard except for the dose-dense administration of the chemotherapy, which was a fairly new concept at the time. Instead of the chemotherapy being given every three weeks, the carboplatin was delivered during week one, along with one-third of a dose of paclitaxel. On weeks two and three, she received only the paclitaxel.
Since then, Hennessy has experienced three recurrences, all treated with surgery followed by chemotherapy regimens, which left her with no evidence of disease.
After that, Hennessy began researching clinical trials and found one testing a personalized immunotherapy vaccine in the Cayman Islands, being run by American doctors. She received a vaccine made from her own tumor tissue and immune cells under the care of George Peoples, M.D., chief medical officer of the South Carolina biotechnology firm Orbis/Perseus, who will participate in a conference panel discussion the day Hennessy gives her talk. "It's remained in remission ever since," she says.
A couple of principles have guided her treatment since it began.
"We were fortunate enough to have access to the minds of the giants in cancer care, and it was decided that, since it was not curable, we would treat it chronically," Hennessy says. "So, we used the chemo and other treatments judiciously, to spare my immune system and bone marrow. The goal was that my body would be able to tolerate multiple treatments to extend the number of years, instead of dropping a nuclear bomb in every time."
In addition, it was important to Hennessy that her doctors all work together in providing her care.
"Once the ovarian cancer recurred initially, we began a collaborative team approach with the doctors," she recalls. Hennessy felt most comfortable receiving her treatments at the office of a nearby community oncologist, George Karp, M.D.; Karp worked collaboratively with Maurie Markman, M.D., president of medicine and science for Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and one of the foremost leaders in the field.
"Patti has been appropriately involved in every step of the clinical decision-making process," Markman says. "She has ensured that decisions are made that optimize the chances for extended survival, but also that maximize the quality of her life."
Grappling With Breast Cancer
Even after she was found to have no evidence of ovarian cancer, Hennessy continued to undergo careful screening for that disease and breast cancer because of her genetic predisposition to the conditions. Two years ago, the screening detected a stage 1a triple-negative breast cancer, which was removed via lumpectomy. A year later, a recurrence was treated with another lumpectomy, followed by radiation treatment.
"Frankly, I thought that was the end of it," Hennessy says.
But in January, a blood test showed increased levels of CA125, a protein that can be elevated in patients with ovarian or recurrent breast cancers. A 7mm nodule was found in her lung and removed via robotic surgery, Hennessy says.
Then, "extensive pathology was done to confirm if it was breast cancer or ovarian cancer. It turned out it was breast cancer, and not only is it metastatic, but it's a very rare subtype that accounts for less than 1 percent of breast cancers: metastatic, metaplastic triple-negative. It's aggressive, spread through the blood and is often non-responsive to chemo."
The diagnosis was nothing short of overwhelming, she says. Still, there's hope.
Around the time Hennessy was undergoing her first lumpectomy, scientists were testing targeted drugs known as PARP inhibitors on mice with metaplastic breast cancer. By the time Hennessy's disease had returned as a metaplastic subtype, researchers had tested the drugs on people with the same condition. In January, the PARP inhibitor Lynparza (olaparib) was approved by the FDA to treat metastatic, BRCA-mutated breast cancer.
"It's been discovered that PARPs seem to attack the metaplastic breast cancer," Hennessy says, "so I'm beginning PARP therapy."
Conference Chair Patrick Borgen, M.D., recognizes the challenges Hennessy has overcome to reach this point in her treatment, as well as those that lie ahead. "Patti Hennessy can teach us two vitally important lessons in breast oncology," says Borgen, chair of the Department of Surgery at Maimonides Medical Center, in Brooklyn, New York, and director of the Brooklyn Breast Cancer Program. "She teaches us the depth of our ignorance about this complex disease and she teaches us to never give up, to maintain hope coupled with tenacity. Her message is clear - not to dwell on the uncertainties, but rather to revel in the distance yet to be traveled."
Developing a New Outlook
For a long time, Hennessy kept quiet about her cancer, except among her closest friends.
"I didn't want people to look at me differently just because I had cancer," she says. "Cancer is a disease. It doesn't define who I am as a person, so my philosophy is that it's just a chronic thing I have to contend with. I just keep going about my day as if it's no different."
But in many ways, after seven years as a patient, life is different. There are things Hennessy has learned that can help others get through the experience, and she's ready to share them.
One of the most important things she did after her first diagnosis, she says, was to ensure that she was ready to fight cancer with a positive attitude, which she believes "just really makes a difference in the outcome."
"Prayer helped me more than I can even begin to tell you. It became a form of meditation for me, and would bring about a feeling of calm," she says. "Being a type A personality, I had my doctor prescribe a low-dose antidepressant, venlafaxine (Effexor), which also happens to minimize hot flashes for women going through menopause. So, after that surgery at 51, I never had to deal with hot flashes or mood swings that accompany instant menopause, and it took care of the depression part for me. I also went on the lowest dose of Xanax (alprazolam) once a day before bed, so I could get a good night's sleep, which is important for healing and the immune system. Finally, I talked to a therapist so I could have my mind in order so that I could live a normal life and not let the cancer define me."
That normal life is incredibly rewarding.
Over the past seven years, Hennessy and her husband have traveled much more than they might have otherwise. "We might have put it off had we not had that diagnosis," she says. They've prioritized spending time with family and close friends. And Hennessy finds that spending time out in nature - near the ocean or gardening - puts her in a Zen state of mind. "I find it best to keep busy," she says. "Focusing on the cancer all the time defeats the purpose of the fight. I try to live and enjoy life."
The icing on the cake?
"Three of my four children were married after my initial diagnosis, and five of our seven grandchildren were born since that time, so the treatment is allowing me to enjoy all these moments of their lives," she says. "That's the most significant thing for me. That's why I will never give up the fight."