When living becomes a full-time job

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One of my favorite things about covering advocacy at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium is that I get to see old friends.Many of you will remember Brenda Hutchison from 2007's and 2008's profiles.

Brenda was diagnosed in 2003 with HER2-positive breast cancer at age 44 and has traveled the difficult path of brain mets, which one-third of HER2 patients experience. At the beginning she did standard chemo. Then when brain mets showed up in 2007 she began Tykerb and Xeloda and got a total response, and by October of that year her scans were clear. Over the next 18 months, it was a matter of the brain spots going to sleep, being dormant and then waking up.

Each time there was IMRT stereotactic targeted radiation to zap them with. The year 2008 brought old spots back to life and a new regimen, and when we met at SABCS in 2008 her new scans had just come back; no cancer was visible.

Each year Brenda has attended SABCS on behalf of the HER2 Support Group. Her voice and journey have become a strong message for other HER2-positive women.

At Thursday's Hot Topics session, Brenda slipped into the chair next to me, and we had one of those wonderful moments of reconnection. In that one moment, I knew we were making progress in treating women with metastatic breast cancer because Brenda was well and happy.

She later filled me in the latest chapter of her life. This year Brenda was stable until April when her tumor markers went up and scans showed a new spot on her adrenal gland and a node in the chest area. Radiation took care of the mediastinal chest spot, and she switched from one aromatase inhibitor to another. Her oncologist said it was time to look for another systemic therapy.

Luckily her timing could not have been better because since early this year a new drug, T-DM1, has been in clinical trials for women with HER2-positive breast cancer. T-DM1 is actually what is being called a super version of Herceptin because it combines Herceptin (the T is for trastuzumab) with a new compound DM1. Results of trials released at SABCS confirmed that this was the drug for her.

Because the drug has not been approved by the FDA, Brenda began the very tedious work of trying to be accepted for compassionate use of T-DM1. That effort has become a full-time job for the past few months as she jumps through the hoops required for admission, but she is hoping she will be accepted soon, in part because of some very positive discussions at SABCS. In fact, she is well-known now among the researchers at SABCS as "the woman from Austin."

Despite the energy it has taken to make the compassionate use happen, Brenda's energy is good. She and her husband continue to travel, going to Europe last winter, and she continues to work as much as her disability will allow. And she remains a beacon of hope to other women who need inspiration and proof that life can be lived fully no matter the diagnosis.