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Immunotherapy gives doctors a chance to cure some cancers, doctor says

Woman first diagnosed with cancer at 38 finds hope after recurrence

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A novel approach to immunotherapy developed by researchers at the National Cancer Institute is breaking barriers to cancer treatment.

Judy Perkins was 38 years old when she was diagnosed with the earliest stage of breast cancer. As far as she knew, she didn't have a history of breast cancer in her family family. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy, surgery to remove both breasts. 

Despite the aggressive measures, she had a recurrence in the same area a decade later and it was aggressive.

"What I could feel was just the tip of the iceberg inside, underneath my sternum was a giant tumor and it was all through my lymph nodes and my upper left chest," Perkins said.

When she didn't respond to the medical protocol, Perkins gave cancer immunotherapy a chance. She was part of a National Cancer Institute-supported clinical trial involving a method to identify mutations in cancer. The immune system's cells protect the body against foreign invaders. 

"When we use immunotherapy we have the chance to cure even if the patient is metastatic, this is something we couldn't do in the past," said Dr. Mehmet Hepgur, a Broward Health oncologist in Fort Lauderdale. 

In Perkins' case, researchers discovered six immune cells inside the tumor that could target the cancer cells. From those six, they built an army. Three years after treatment, Perkins remains cancer free.

The current research is experimental. The new approach to immunotherapy is dependent on mutations and not on the specific type of cancer. It could be a blueprint for the treatment of many kinds of cancers. 

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