"I had chemo and radiation and a lumpectomy and I thought I was fine," she said. "A year later, it was back in both my lungs."
Finally, her doctor tried the experimental drug herceptin. Unlike traditional chemotherapy, which attacks cancer and healthy cells with poisonous chemicals, herceptin targets just the defective gene without toxic side effects. Berni's tumors haven't shrunk -- but they haven't grown either.
Herceptin targets defective genes and slows cancer growth
"In most cases, what we've seen is that herceptin slows the growth of the cancer in that it allows patients to remain stable," said Dr. Richard Rosenbluth of Hackensack University Medical Center.
However, for some women, herceptin has had more dramatic results.
"Some of these women are out now four to six years and the longest survivor is out now six years plus and is remaining disease free on no active therapy," said Dr. Dennis Slamon of the UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center.
Kathy Calasher, who has been through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, hoped to be like the women Dr. Slamon described. Since going on herceptin, tumors in her liver and lungs have disappeared.
"I feel cautiously optimistic," she said.
Doctors are optimistic that if herceptin is this effective in late stage breast cancer, it may work even better in cancers detected earlier on. In addition, there are hopes that it could also help treat certain types of ovarian, uterine, lung and prostate cancers that have the same genetic alteration.
Reported by John Roberts
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