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Research Is the Reason I’m Here for My Daughters

By BCRF | May 6, 2024

Clara Sharp was diagnosed with breast cancer months after giving birth. Now, she fundraises for research so her daughters don’t have the same experience

When Clara Sharp felt a lump in her breast after pumping breast milk for her then-three-month-old daughter, she thought, Oh, that’s weird. Must be a clogged duct.

She breastfed her daughter throughout the next day hoping the lump would go down, but it didn’t.

“That was the first moment where the hair stood up on the back of my neck,” she said. “I tried doing all the tricks to get rid of it for a few days, but after two or three days of that, I felt like I needed to call somebody.”  

Because of Clara’s age (37 at the time) and the fact that she was a nursing mom, her care team also attributed the lump to a clogged duct. At this point, Clara was starting to get really worried because nothing about the lump was changing. After she made several persistent phone calls, Clara’s care team agreed to order a mammogram to give her peace of mind.

Clara’s gut feeling that the lump was more than a clogged duct turned out to be right. The radiologist who read her mammogram the same day said the mass was “incredibly suspicious for breast cancer.”

“I thought of my two girls and my husband and the prospect of them not having me,” Clara said of the moment she found out. “I started to think: OK, what are the things I need to do to make sure that they’re going to be okay if I’m not here?”

Clara got an emergency biopsy in her breast and lymph nodes, which also appeared suspicious on imaging.

After receiving her official diagnosis, Clara was able to be seen by her breast surgeon the next day. “He walked into the waiting room, and he saw me crying and put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You’re going to be OK,’” Clara said. “That was the first time I felt like I could breathe in weeks.”

Clara was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer and, after a flurry of tests and scans, got her treatment plan. Learning her breast cancer was HER2-positive “felt like a bit of good news” because it has targeted treatments. 

“You’re given your marching orders and then it’s just head down and you’re in drive mode doing what you need to do,” she said.

Clara began with six rounds of chemotherapy—an experience that was incredibly difficult mentally and physically. Clara was hospitalized several times and required blood transfusions. Based on an MRI at the end though, it appeared she had had a complete response, and there was no cancer left in the breast.

Unfortunately, when she went in for her lumpectomy, Clara’s surgeon found out that her sentinel lymph node still had cancer. That required a change in treatment plan: After surgery, she needed to do 14 rounds of another, newer type of chemotherapy.

“I was pretty devastated when I found that out, especially hearing 14 rounds, because I was pretty miserable on chemotherapy,” she said.

That therapy, Kadcyla, is part of an exciting newer class of targeted treatments called antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) that are able to deliver potent anti-cancer drugs like chemotherapy precisely to cancer cells while sparing healthy cells—making them less toxic. In Kadcyla’s case, a chemotherapy is paired with a monoclonal antibody of Herceptin, a lifesaving therapy that drastically changed the prognosis for HER2-positive breast cancer when it was approved in the 1990s.

Just two years before Clara’s diagnosis, Kadcyla was approved to reduce recurrence risk for people with early-stage, HER2-positive breast cancer, like her, who have remaining cancer cells after surgery and chemotherapy.

“It’s amazing to think about how targeted it is. They use Herceptin to hunt out cells with HER2-receptors on them, and then the drug binds to the cell and delivers the chemotherapy right into it like a Trojan horse,” Clara said.

Clara’s initial devastation about needing another chemotherapy turned into a sense of relief—and she experienced no major side effects.

“I was really disappointed at the idea of having to receive more chemotherapy, but then I realized I was going to be the beneficiary of this therapy that was almost like an insurance policy. It was doing one last quiet sweep through my body in a way that was not toxic to me,” she said. “In the end I was really grateful.”

After two straight years of treatment, Clara is also grateful to be able to reprioritize and spend time with her husband and two daughters, now seven and three.

“I’ve always been a person that moves 1,000 miles a minute, and I have a very hard time saying no when people ask me to take on a role or volunteer. I’m always wearing many, many hats,” Clara said. “This forced me to slow down and just take the time for me and my family. 2023 is my year of saying, ‘No, not right now.’”

During treatment, Clara and her husband told their oldest daughter, who was four when Clara was diagnosed, things like, “Mommy is sick but she’s taking medicine to feel better.” Clara had a stack of Post-It notes on her desk counting down the days until her last round of chemo that she would rip off one-by-one every day. One day, her oldest noticed.

“She said, ‘What are you doing mommy?’ and I said, ‘Well, you know the medicine I don’t love—this is how many days I have until I get my last one.’ And then every morning she asked, ‘Can I do it?’ One day my daughters will be able to look back and say, ‘Wow, my mom did this. She was a superhero,’” Clara said.

Clara’s daughters—along with her two sisters and four nieces—also inspired Clara and her husband to fundraise for BCRF. To date, they’ve raised more than $20,000 for research.

“The prognosis for HER2-positive breast cancer was once incredibly dreary. To know that these miracle drugs exist that changed my life and the lives of so many other people with HER2-positive breast cancer—I can’t imagine a world without that,” Clara said. “Without research, I wouldn’t be here right now. It’s important to me to be a voice saying, ‘We need funds for research, and we need to move it forward.”