Faced with aggressive, metastatic breast cancer, Sheila Zoerner enrolled in a Kaiser Permanente clinical trial. One hundred treatments and six years later, she is cancer-free. (Zoerner is pictured above, with husband Charlie, left, and Dr. Tanvir Sattar, right.)
Over the past six years, Sheila Zoerner has seen her three children get married and the arrival of two grandchildren. She has traveled everywhere from Lake Tahoe to Italy with her husband of 21 years, Charlie.
Sheila has treasured every moment; all the more because none were expected to happen.
“I was shocked when I felt the lump,” said Sheila, now 69 years old and living in Benicia. After visiting her Kaiser Permanente gynecologist in April 2010, a mammogram and sonogram resulted in a timely diagnosis of HER2-positive breast cancer, an aggressive type with a poor long-term prognosis.
The next step was a multidisciplinary clinic with her oncologist Tanvir Sattar, MD, Charlie, and all the Kaiser Permanente professionals who would be involved in her cancer care: her surgeon, radiologist, plastic surgeon, clinical nurse, nutritionist, and others.
“It was a four-hour appointment,” Sheila recalled. “Knowing that there were that many people looking at me at one time made us feel really confident. They were making sure they were all on the same page.”
While preparing for a mastectomy, Sheila got more devastating news. A bone biopsy confirmed that the cancer had spread to her spine. “The next day we called Dr. Sattar and he came in on a Saturday and answered every last question that we had.”
Enrolling in a Clinical Trial
That’s when Dr. Sattar recommended that Sheila enroll in the clinical trial for an experimental cancer therapy. The Kaiser Permanente Oncology Clinical Trials program currently has about 70 leading-edge trials.
“This allows patients to receive treatment options that are not available through the standard of care,” Dr. Sattar said.
“The disclosures were frightening,” said Sheila, who after assurance from Dr. Sattar decided that “if there was a new drug out there that was willing to improve my chances, I was willing to take that chance.”
Her treatment began with infusions every 21 days of a first-line chemotherapy, plus two targeted drugs, including the experimental drug Pertuzumab; combined, these two drugs target the HER receptor family.
“Each receptor is like a light switch going on and off,” explained Cynthia Walker, the clinical oncology research nurse on Sheila’s case. “Cancer can change how those light switches function, so that they support cancer growth. The targeted therapy normalizes the signal from that switch.”
Sheila received seven cycles of chemotherapy and the targeted drugs. By December 2010, her scans showed no disease. She continues to receive the two targeted drugs, with virtually no side effects. She has been cancer-free for five years.
Based on results of the research clinical trial that Dr. Sattar enrolled Sheila in, the Food and Drug Administration in 2013 approved the use of Pertuzimab in combination with chemotherapy as part of breast cancer treatment plans.
Celebrating 100 Treatments
On Feb. 18, Sheila arrived at the Kaiser Permanente Walnut Creek Medical Center with Charlie for her 100th treatment. After meeting with Dr. Sattar, Sheila and her nurse went to the patient education room for a quick meeting with Walker before her infusion.
That’s when the center’s entire oncology staff surprised Sheila and Charlie with a celebration honoring the successful cancer-care outcome that brought all of them together. The staff presented Sheila with a handmade “Miss 100” sash, signed a memory book for her, and decorated her treatment station.
“Sheila is a patient who has savored every day,” said Walker, who organized the party and baked all the treats.
“I’m very grateful for Kaiser Permanente and for where I’m at, and what I’ve been able to learn and accomplish over the past 6 years,” Sheila said. “I’m not afraid any more.”