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MADISON, Wis. – Today, Tina Deeg is celebrating her 52nd birthday with a lot of energy and hope. This birthday feels a world away from her birthday two years ago, she said.
“On my birthday in 2021 I had a mammogram that found an abnormal lump,” she said. “After several tests, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.”
Specifically, she was diagnosed with stage 4, hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes and liver.
“I gave myself a little time to cry, then I knew we had to get to work,” she said.
Deeg, who lives in Appleton, Wis., received several chemotherapy treatments at a local clinic until the tumors had shrunk enough to enable her to have a radiation procedure called Y-90 in August 2022.
Unfortunately, the cancer began to progress at the beginning of 2023. Deeg was told that her only option for treatment would be an aggressive form of chemotherapy.
“I really didn’t want to go that route,” she said. “I didn’t want to feel weak and sick and lose my hair, not this year.”
Deeg was not only going to be a bridesmaid at her best friend’s wedding in 2023, but she was also planning her own summer wedding.
Deeg and her family began looking for alternative cancer care options. With guidance from her employer Tim Bergstrom, and assistance from a friend who worked in health care, she was referred to UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center for a second opinion.
In February, Deeg met with Dr. Malinda West, medical oncologist and assistant professor of oncology, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
“We felt Dr. West’s warmth and compassion immediately,” Deeg said. “Plus, she thought she knew about a clinical trial I would be a good fit to join.”
The Carbone Cancer Center has been the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in Wisconsin for 50 years and is home to approximately 250 clinical trials at any given time, including the one Deeg ultimately joined.
She got into the trial right under the wire, according to Casey Pieper, clinical trials coordinator, UW School of Medicine and Public Health.
“We were down to a matter of hours when we finally got the test results back that said she would be an ideal candidate to join this trial, which also had limited slots for patients remaining,” Pieper said.
The trial is testing a combination of immunotherapy, which harnesses the body’s own immune system to target and kill cancer cells, and a targeted estrogen blocker, which is a standard therapy for Deeg’s type of cancer that blocks estrogen from binding to the cancer cell, slowing its growth, according to West. The trial is designed to determine if the two treatments combined can help slow the growth of breast cancer better than the estrogen blocker would alone.
Deeg began the trial in March and within a week, she noticed swelling at the site of one of the tumors in her breast and became very concerned, so she called West.
“I thought, ‘This can’t be normal, right?’” she said.
West ran tests, including imaging and a biopsy, to determine whether the swelling was the tumor growing.
“In fact, it was the opposite,” West said. “The tests revealed the swelling was something called pseudo-progression, where a tumor appears to be growing but the swelling is actually due to the immune response around cancer cells that are dying inside the tumor.”
The experimental treatment was working.
In the last six months, Deeg’s tumors have shrunk significantly, according to West. She has also experienced very few side effects, and she got to keep her own hair to style on her wedding day, which West attended.
“It meant the world to have her there,” Deeg said. “She’s like part of our family now.”
Deeg continues to travel from Appleton to Carbone in Madison for appointments approximately every three weeks to receive the immunotherapy and targeted estrogen blocker. Because she has metastatic breast cancer, the goal for her care team is to slow the disease as much as possible so she will continue with the trial for as long as it is effective. She often attends the appointments with her daughter Toni or her husband Dan.
“We don’t mind the drive,” Deeg said. “It’s bonding time for us.”
Deeg and her family strongly encourage others to not be afraid to seek a second opinion.
“It’s your life, so advocate for yourself and for what you want,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to look for the right doctor or the right treatment options for you.”
West is optimistic about Deeg’s future in the trial as well.
“Her response to this therapy has been remarkable,” she said. “Her participation in this trial has not only given her a new lease on life but could help us move toward better therapies for others facing metastatic breast cancer in the future.”
In 2023, an estimated 300,590 people in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer, which is the second most common cancer in women in the United States following skin cancer. In the United States, 6% of women have metastatic breast cancer when they are first diagnosed, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.