October 7, 2016 | by Samantha Bonar
It was three years ago, during a Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure cancer walk in Las Vegas, when Daryn J. Rodriguez, 61, first felt the pain in her leg.
Her daughter, who was walking with her, suggested that maybe she was developing arthritis. “But by the end of the walk, I could barely walk,” said Rodriguez, who works for Wells Fargo and divides her time between Las Vegas and San Dimas, California.
Rodriguez went to the doctor for an X-ray and received some shocking news: the Stage 0 breast cancer she had treated aggressively with a double mastectomy eight years before had returned, and it was now in her left femur.
“I found out in May, and by June it had eaten through my leg,” Rodriguez said. She was scheduled to begin radiation treatment at City of Hope, but instead she was immediately taken into surgery to have a steel rod placed in her thigh.
There was more bad news. Scans showed areas of metastatic cancer 'all over' Rodriguez’s skeleton, as well as in the lymph nodes under her left arm. She now rated a Stage 4 diagnosis.
“When my cancer came back, I called and they got me right in,” Rodriguez said of City of Hope. “They said, ‘Come down right now.’ I think I was in the next day. And then they started working with me, helping with any insurance issues I had. Once it was time for treatment, they said, ‘Get in here. This is what you gotta do.’ They helped guide my daughter to help me because my brain wasn’t working that well just then.”
After surgery, Rodriguez began 10 rounds of radiation and six chemotherapy sessions, losing her hair in the process.
But there was good news in the offing.
Rodriguez’s doctor, Linda Bosserman, M.D., an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research at City of Hope in Rancho Cucamonga, California, had suggested she undergo specialized testing. Her tumors were biopsied, and it was discovered that Rodriguez’s tumors tested positive for a protein called HER2.
HER2 stands for human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, which promotes the growth of cancer cells.
In about one of every five breast cancers, the cancer cells have a gene mutation that makes an excess of the HER2 protein. On the down side, HER2-positive breast cancers tend to be more aggressive than other types.
However, treatments that specifically target HER2 tend to be so effective that the prognosis for HER2-positive breast cancer is actually quite good. This type of cancer can often be managed well long-term, with good quality of life and a low incidence of side effects.
Rodriguez’s maintenance chemotherapy regimen was specifically concocted with two HER2 protein blockers (Trastuzumab and Pertuzumab). She receives chemotherapy infusions every three weeks at City of Hope — she’s had a total of 57 so far. She also receives a bone medicine infusion every 90 days to strengthen her bones.
And the treatment has worked wonderfully. Rodriguez is in remission at all sites. Now, almost three and a half years after her Stage 4 diagnosis, there is no evidence of her tumors.
“I would say my cancer has responded awesomely,” Rodriguez said. “They do a blood test every 90 days for cancer markers. They say my numbers are great. As long as the cancer markers are down, they don’t even do bone scans.”
“Daryn’s cancer is one of the most unusual presentations I have seen in my 35 years as a physician,” Bosserman admits. "Being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer eight years after a Stage 0 diagnosis is a very rare event. We normally tell patients that recurrent breast cancer after preventive mastectomies happens to maybe three to four women per 100, at most. Unfortunately for Daryn, she was in this rare group and when her tumor recurred, it had already spread widely.”
“I know that I’m Stage 4 and that it’s terminal at some point, but so far I’m responding to everything,” Rodriguez said. “So far, three years in, I feel good. I walk a lot. I walk over 2,000 miles a year. I keep moving. My doctors say, ‘Just keep going.’”
Rodriguez says she has had no side effects from treatment: “I go straight to work afterwards.” She also continues to hike, boat and paddleboard, and is planning a trip to Hawaii next month.
“Daryn has benefited from the many clinical trials women have entered that resulted in her getting the amazing regimen of six chemotherapy treatments with two HER2 protein blockers that led to her full cancer remission,” Bosserman said. “Then that remission has been maintained by ongoing infusions of the two HER2-blocking protein medications, which she has essentially no side effects from. She is now three years in remission on a protein-infusion regimen that lets her lead her life around her therapy. This has been a true blessing!”
For others coping with a similar diagnosis, Rodriguez said, “You can see the change in people’s faces when you say ‘Stage 4.’ But it’s OK. It is what it is. I don’t think about it. I just go on with every day like it’s a normal day, and it has been. I do as much as possible. We constantly go places, do things. I spend time with my grandson, I walked in my daughter’s wedding.”
“My daughter has always said, ‘Mom, just don’t think about it. Just do the treatment and go.’ So I’ve always looked forward with a positive point of view. And luckily for me, it’s worked out. I don’t let it get to me.”
“After the normal initial shock, Daryn learned everything about her disease, participated actively in discussing treatment options and chose the current state-of-the-art therapy,” Bosserman added. “She has chosen to live beyond the fear and uncertainty of her metastatic cancer diagnosis. She remains in remission and we all hope that if her disease should ever recur, we’ll have the next new innovations in therapy to once again put it in remission, or even a cure one day.”
Learn more about City of Hope's breast cancer treatments and research. If you are looking for a second opinion or consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.