After experiencing a persistent cough she’d chalked up to allergies, acid reflux, and COVID-19 at one point, Jen Feinberg was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer two months before her 44th birthday. To say the diagnosis was shocking doesn’t begin to describe it.
Two years prior, Jen learned she had ductal carcinoma in situ (also known as stage 0 breast cancer) after her second-ever mammogram. After getting three opinions, Jen elected to have a double mastectomy.
“I considered myself lucky,” the wife and mom of two children said. “At the time, my father-in-law was suffering from a very aggressive head and neck cancer. I was relieved to learn that the only treatment I needed was surgery. Compared to my father-in-law, I did not see myself as a cancer patient.”
After surgery, Jen started seeing an oncologist to begin hormone therapy. While Jen was standing on the stairs of her kids’ school during pickup, her oncologist called to tell her she had a one-millimeter micro-metastasis in her breast that was HER2-positive and hormone receptor (HR)–negative (unlike her primary DCIS that had been HR-positive).
“My oncologist explained that HER2 is a more aggressive form of cancer, but by having a mastectomy, I had pursued the most aggressive treatment option available to me,” she said. “I lived for two years thinking the cancer was gone, not realizing that it only takes one rogue cell to propel you from stage 0 to stage 4.”
So, when Jen developed a cough early last year, breast cancer was the furthest thing from her mind. After testing negative for COVID-19, Jen got a chest X-ray. The image, she remembered, “was lit up and looked like popcorn.” She was given a note that said her X-ray was “concerning for metastatic disease.”
A barrage of tests later, her metastatic diagnosis was confirmed. At that point, Jen could barely walk up a set of stairs, so she started treatment immediately. Six rounds of chemo alleviated most of her symptoms, and thanks to a cold cap, she retained most of her hair.
For 18 months, Jen received two HER2-targeted therapies—Herceptin® and Perjeta®—that kept her metastatic breast cancer under control. While on those first-line treatments, she was already researching options for second-line treatments and potential clinical trials.
In November—after experiencing a persistent headache and requesting an MRI the month prior —Jen got the devastating news that she has breast cancer brain metastases. Up to 50 percent of people diagnosed with metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer will develop brain mets.
“Being HER2-positive is a blessing and a curse,” Jen said. “The diagnosis means there are targeted treatments available, but it is also more aggressive, and there is no cure. I hoped I would never include myself in this group.”
Jen underwent targeted radiation therapy and started a new treatment regimen through the phase II HER2CLIMB-04 clinical trial.
Research has accelerated in recent years, particularly for breast cancer brain mets, leading to new treatments and a deepening understanding of why this happens.
“It’s likely I will be on one or more drugs approved by the FDA in just the past 2 years,” Jen said. “These treatments are only possible because of research, and research is only possible if we continue to make the investment.”
Wanting to “give purpose” to her diagnosis and support more research, Jen started a fundraiser for BCRF last year that to date has raised more than $500,000—making her one of BCRF’s first independent fundraisers to fund an entire annual research grant. This year, she’s supporting Dr. Sandra M. Swain of Georgetown University Medical Center. Her fundraiser has been an inspiring community and family effort, with her daughter, Maya, raising $9,000 for BCRF for her bat mitzvah service project.
“Our parents shared it with their friends. Our friends shared it with their friends. It was so exciting and humbling to hear from so many people,” Jen said. “It’s just been overwhelming.”
Metastatic breast cancer has no cure, but Jen finds hope in research and the fact that it’s accelerating for stage IV disease.
“Advances in science are what made my treatments possible today—that’s very inspiring,” she said. “I’m comforted by the fact that additional therapies have been approved in just the past year. Research is what will keep me alive.”
Read more stories from BCRF’s Research Is the Reason storytelling initiative here.
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