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Renee's story

Garvan’s innovative research approaches transform outcomes for breast cancer patients.

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Garvan’s innovative research approaches transform outcomes for breast cancer patients.

In Australia, approximately forty individuals are diagnosed with breast cancer every day. In the 1990s, around 25% of these patients would sadly die within a few years of their diagnosis. Fortunately, this number has now dropped to less than 10%. This significant reduction is thanks to innovative research, an increased understanding of the biological mechanisms behind the disease and improved treatments.

While the prognosis for breast cancer patients is far better than it was thirty years ago, approximately 57 Australians are diagnosed with this disease each day. A cancer diagnosis causes intense stress for the patient and their loved ones, while also significantly impacting the patient’s professional life and commitments in the community.

This was Renee’s experience.

At 35, Renee’s life was filled with family, friends, work and further education. A mother of two, she worked full-time in the finance industry and was completing her MBA. The demands of her schedule meant it was easy for her to downplay the symptoms she was experiencing – a feeling that something wasn’t quite right in her body and occasional pain in her arm. In a state of denial, she put her discomfort down to usual tiredness that many people experience while balancing the demands of work and family.

But in September 2020, Renee was forced to face the seriousness of her situation. One night, the pain in her left arm was so severe that she couldn’t sleep. She woke her husband, who took her to hospital. There – in the emergency room – Renee found out she had breast cancer. The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, which was causing the pain in her arm.

In that moment, Renee’s whole life changed. Her career, studies and even the care of her children had to be deprioritised, with the demands of her treatment taking centre stage. Renee was referred to Professor Elgene Lim at The Kinghorn Cancer Centre and a week later, she started a four-month cycle of chemotherapy. This left her bedridden and unwell, but Renee knew it was the ‘necessary evil’ she had to endure to get well.

Until her diagnosis, Renee had felt in control of her life. But cancer wasn’t something she could control. Her children were only aged 10 and 12, and Renee was concerned about the impact her disease would have on them. While undergoing treatment, her mother moved in to help care for her children. This gave Renee’s husband more time to care for her. When the school holidays began, a friend told Renee she was taking the children away for a week’s holiday so she could focus on getting better. Renee objected, saying it would be too much of a burden, but her friend insisted. She’d lost her own mother to breast cancer just three years earlier and wanted to help in any way she could. Renee began to see that her journey through cancer wasn’t limited to the experiences of her family; the community was part of it too. “It takes a whole community of people to help you get though [it],” she says.

Following chemotherapy, Renee had a left breast mastectomy and some lymph nodes removed. She describes the day of her surgery one of the happiest in her life because it meant the cancer was being removed from her body. It also gave her the opportunity to transform her illness into something positive, by donating her tissue tumour to medical researchers through a program called SHARE.

Cancer denied Renee the chance to participate in many important milestones, especially in relation to her son, who was in his final year of primary school when she was diagnosed. She was too ill to attend his final Christmas concert or his school graduation and it devastated her that he didn’t have his mum with him during these important experiences. But she knew that, thanks to the team at Kinghorn and the effective treatment she was receiving, cancer wouldn’t stop her from being there in the future. By donating her tumour tissue, she hopes to help scientists advance cancer research, so that fewer people miss out on moments that matter to them.   

“Cancer robbed me and my children of having their mum present but it won’t rob me for the upcoming years and it won’t rob other women because of the fantastic research and medical teams that we are so lucky to have,” she says.

Two years after her diagnosis, Renee is cancer free. However, not all patients have the same positive outcome. Around 10–15% of people diagnosed with breast cancer have triple negative breast cancer – a treatment-resistant form of the disease that can quickly adapt its cells to avoid chemotherapy. This limits a patient’s treatment options and survival rates are much lower than for other types of breast cancer.

Garvan’s Associate Professor Christine Chaffer has found a new strategy to treat triple negative breast cancer, using a therapy called Seviteronel to target a ‘defence switch’ on cancer cells that alerts them to the threat of chemotherapy. Seviteronel could potentially prevent cancer cells from becoming resistant to chemotherapy, leading to better treatment outcomes.

“Triple negative breast cancer is an aggressive disease with a greater likelihood of spreading around the body and recurring within five years than other breast cancers. In preclinical studies, we found that an experimental drug, Seviteronel, combined with chemotherapy, could be twice as effective in reducing the size of tumours than chemotherapy alone,” says Associate Professor Chaffer.

Associate Professor Chaffer’s research is now being advanced into a world-first clinical trial in NSW, called 4CAST. This clinical trial could dramatically improve survival rates for patients and even block tumour growth. It also has the potential to impact other cancer types such as ovarian, renal, liver and glioblastoma.

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Clinical trials demonstrate the collaborative effort required to find effective treatments for disease. This clinical trial has been made possible through the combined efforts of our researchers, participating patients, medical teams providing patient care, pharmaceutical partners and the generosity of The NELUNE Foundation, The Paramor Family, Australia’s National Health & Medical Research Council, Cancer Institute NSW, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, the Girgensohn Foundation and the St Vincent’s Hospital Research Foundation who supported our research. Collaborative effort and community support of breakthrough research is critical to developing new treatments for disease and ensuring more families, like Renee's, get to enjoy more moments together. 

While Renee experiences some side effects as a result of her illness and treatment, such as lymphedema and forced menopause, she sees these as a reminder that she is alive and has survived cancer. Instead of focusing on long-term goals and aspirations, as she did before her diagnosis, Renee makes the most of the little things in life now, like seeing her children every day and knowing that she’ll be there for them tomorrow.

“Today is all we have,” Renee says. “We have to learn and appreciate and be in that moment.”