Don’t Count Yourself Out: Karen Peterson’s Immunotherapy Story
Karen’s Breast Cancer Journey
In 2015, Karen Peterson received a diagnosis of stage 1 triple-negative breast cancer. Soon following, she endured several rough treatments and received the news that she was cancer-free, but she was still worried the cancer would make a devastating return. She spent the next year researching different treatments, clinical trials, and care teams.
When the cancer returned in 2017 as metastatic, Karen was told she had 18 to 24 months to live. She was apprehensive about going back to chemotherapy and sought out a second opinion. She wanted to fight the disease based on science. After genomic testing for her tumor found different gene expression and mutation profiles, she understood that immunotherapy was the next best thing for her.
Karen discovered a phase 1 clinical trial at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, where she received a combination of two immunotherapies: bempegaldesleukin (BEMPEG; NKTR-214), an IL-2 agonist, and nivolumab (Opdivo), a PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor. Eight weeks later, her first CT scan showed a tumor reduction of 72%.
The good news did not stop here. Karen's clinical trial ended in 2019, and she was officially declared in remission in 2020.
How Karen’s Treatment Worked
The immune system has the ability to fight cancer, if given the right support. Clinical trials, like the one in which Karen enrolled, help determine what is the best combination for each individual. In her case, two immunotherapies— bempegaldesleukin and nivolumab—provided her body with the right support.
Bempegaldesleukin is an IL-2 agonist. Agonists switch on pathways that promote adaptive immune responses by activating cancer-killing cells or stimulating cells that coordinate the immune responses.
Nivolumab is a PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor. Checkpoint inhibitors block the immune checkpoints that cancer cells exploit to avoid immune detection and response.
While breast cancer was once considered a particular challenge for immunotherapy, new research and treatments, often in combination with chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation, demonstrate that it is possible to unleash the immune system to fight breast cancer.
Karen Peterson and the Future of Immunotherapy
Karen's experience has taught her the value of patient advocacy. She educated herself and advocated for herself throughout her cancer journey. Shewants others to have the same resilience. Her best advice for other patients is to get informed, seek support, and request genomic testing.
She also fights for more awareness surrounding clinical trials in Black communities. Black patients have the highest death rate for most cancers, yet have low enrollment in clinical trials. She invites more uncomfortable conversations in the medical space for better health equity for Black people. She recently started Karen’s Club to empower patients of color with the knowledge and trust to pursue clinical trials that can save or extend their lives.
Today, Karen is focusing on being a patient advocate, writing blogs, and being a voice for women around the world dealing with similar struggles.
Read our interview with Karen
Learn more about how the Cancer Research Institute is helping to advance research that is leading to treatments like the one Karen received. You can make a difference in the lives of patients like Karen by supporting cancer immunotherapy research efforts today.
Originally published July 22, 2021