Facing hard diagnosis, woman finds hope in experimental treatment

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Melissa Wheatley is now a familiar face at Piedmont Fayette Hospital's Cancer Center.

The Hampton 53-year old has been coming here since she found a lump in her breast back in October.

"I just had this feeling that it was cancer, I don't know why," Wheatley says.

She was right.

Scans showed Wheatley had not just one, but two masses in her breast, and more cancer in her lymph nodes, lungs, and bones.

On Halloween of 2018, she got more bad news.

"We got the news that it was stage 4," Wheatley says.

That's when Wheatley came to see Piedmont Fayette oncologist Trevor Feinstein, who explained she has triple-negative.

breast cancer.

Only 10 to 20% of breast cancers are triple-negative.

But, Dr. Feinstein says, this type of cancer is more likely to spread beyond the breast, more aggressive, and harder to stop.

"It's a very bad disease," Feinstein says.  "When it has left the breast and traveled to distant organs, the median survival is less than a year."

With chemotherapy, Wheatley was told she would likely have about a 20% chance of survival.

So, she decided to try something else.

Wheatley joined an early-stage clinical trial here at Piedmont Fayette, testing a combination of two cancer immunotherapy drugs.

One is pembrolizumab, or Keytruda, which is already FDA-approved to treat advanced lung, skin and head and neck cancers.

The other a still-experimental immunotherapy known as SGNLIV-1A.

Used together, researchers think they might help the patient's immune system better identify and destroy cancer cells.

Wheatley wanted in.

We caught up with her at her sixth treatment.

She's had some expected side effects, like fatigue.

"I lost my hair after the first treatment," she says.

Yet, something unexpected seems to be happening. 

This is an early-stage safety study, designed to find the right dose of medicines, not to evaluate how effective this combination might be.

But here's the thing: Wheatley's cancer seems to be disappearing.

"After the first 2 treatments I had a scan, and all of the masses in my lungs were gone," she says.

After 2 more treatments, the cancer in her breast and bone were no longer visible.

"And her most recent scans, we couldn't identify the cancer, which was wonderful," Dr. Feinstein says.

He is hopeful but cautious.

"Yes, you can't see the cancer, but there is still the fear there are microscopic cells," Feinstein says.

"We'll keep this going, keep monitoring her every 6 weeks, and see what the future holds."

Still, Melissa Wheatley is grateful they're talking about the future, her future.

"It's a miracle," she says. "It's a miracle."