Spring 2021 was a low point in Penny Johnson’s three-year battle with breast cancer.
The cancer, originally diagnosed in August 2018, had spread to her lungs and brain. The 57-year-old North East Township woman’s latest chemotherapy drug wasn’t working, and she spent most of her time lying in bed.
“It appeared at that point that Penny was close to the end of her life,” said David Seastone, D.O., her medical oncologist at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center-Erie.
But help was on its way.
Since two chemotherapy drugs had failed to help Johnson with her cancer, she qualified for a new medication, Trodelvy. It had recently been approved by the Food & Drug Administration to treat patients with certain types of advanced breast cancer.
Seastone started Johnson on the new drug in March. Within two months, Johnson noticed a difference.
“First of all, I could breathe,” said Johnson, who added that at one point she had 16 growths in her lungs. “Then I started having more energy. I could get up and do some things.”
Cancer returned with a cough
Johnson had hoped she had defeated her breast cancer in 2019 after undergoing a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. Follow-up screenings had not detected any cancer.
When she developed a cough in June 2020, Johnson thought it was an allergy or a throat irritation from the disinfectant she used to reduce her risk of getting COVID.
But when she went to Seastone for an examination, the cause was much more serious.
“I was just putting a stethoscope to her back and I asked her to breathe,” Seastone said. “She told me that if she tried, she would start coughing.”
Seastone ordered a chest x-ray, which showed the cancer had returned, not to her breasts but to her lungs and later to her brain.
The type of cancer Johnson has — triple-negative breast cancer — is aggressive and difficult to treat.
“This is resistant to most of hormonal-based treatments we use,” Seastone said. “It’s also more likely to spread.”
Trodelvy combines antibodies with chemotherapy
Trodelvy combines a monoclonal antibody with a chemotherapy drug, so that it targets a protein found in 90% of patients with triple-negative breast cancer.
In trials, the drug was shown to extend patients’ lives by an average of about five months. Johnson said she felt better in the final full week of September than she had at any time in the past 11 months.
“I give credit to this new drug, but also I have a strong faith and my family has helped so much,” Johnson said.
Seastone said patients respond in different ways to various chemotherapy drugs. He is thrilled Johnson has rebounded so well from how she felt in the spring, and he doesn’t try to predict how long the drug will remain effective.
“Penny gets an image taken and we track her progress,” Seastone said. “I tell her that our job is to keep it under control and for her to live as well as she can for as long as she can.”
Johnson now feels strong enough to resume certain daily activities, such as driving.
She has gone for several driving lessons with her husband, and has delivered her cancer awareness group’s newsletters to her neighbor. More outings are planned, if Johnson feels up to it.
“I’m tired of hiding,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I’m still being careful. I wear a mask for COVID.”