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Research Is the Reason My Aggressive Cancer was Treatable

By BCRF | December 23, 2020

HER2-positive breast cancer once had one of the worst prognoses. Thanks to new therapies made possible by research, people like Uma Iyengar have cures.

About two years ago, Uma and her husband, Mukund, temporarily relocated from Chicago to New York City to be close to “the babies,” as she affectionately calls her grandchildren. Her son Dr. Neil Iyengar, a BCRF researcher, and his partner had just celebrated the arrival of their twins, and the first-time grandparents wanted to be close.

That year, Uma went back to Chicago a few times, but forgot to schedule her annual mammogram. As she was preparing to end her time in New York and move home, she noticed a change in her left breast and made an appointment. The radiologist was concerned by what she saw on the mammogram and ultrasound.

Everyone—Uma, Mukund, her sons and their families—was scheduled to go on a family cruise. It wasn’t easy for their whole clan to find a time to go on a vacation together, and everyone was excited. Uma decided she didn’t want this news to loom over the trip like a dark cloud and figured that her sons, both doctors (Neil is the oncologist of the family and Ravi is the endocrinologist), would want to cancel the trip and spring into action. So, she waited and told everyone when they got home.

“Of course, I was infuriated she didn’t tell me right away,” Neil said, laughing. “But in retrospect it was sweet. She didn’t want to cancel the trip, and she knew me and my brother well.”

RELATED: Research Is the Reason Dr. Neil Iyengar Can Better Treat His Patients

Back in New York City, she had her imaging reviewed at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), where Neil is a medical oncologist and researcher, and had a biopsy done. Neil was the one to tell her she had breast cancer.

“I was touched that he made a point to tell me,” she said.

Uma and Mukund opted to extend their stay in New York for another year so Uma could be treated by Neil’s colleagues at MSKCC. There was no doubt in anyone’s minds that that was where she would be treated.

Uma was eventually diagnosed with stage I HER2-positive breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease that used to have one of the worst prognoses. But, thanks to research, it now has high survival rates.

Uma had surgery to remove a lump and six lymph nodes, then started on Herceptin, a targeted therapy for HER2-positive breast cancer that was developed with early support from BCRF. Over the next several months, she had 12 rounds of chemo and radiation. She described her year of treatment as a marathon—but she was glad that she had a “full repertoire” of treatments for her aggressive cancer.

Even though Neil was not Uma’s doctor, he was actively involved in her treatment, joining her for every appointment and course of chemo. He was there when she rang the bell after she finished radiation.

“He was quite confident that I would be completely cured, so I didn’t entertain the thought that I would not be cured,” she said. “It gave me a lot of confidence that he was an expert in the subject. I feel very fortunate to be his mother.”

Uma also signed up for one of her son’s studies on the impact of exercise on breast cancer patients in treatment.

“I went and registered myself, and for four months I did cardio on a treadmill and was remotely monitored by the research team,” she said. “The exercise helped me at least maintain some amount of energy.”

Now that she’s done with treatment, Uma said she was grateful that several things were there for her: the babies, her husband and sons, and a targeted treatment for her form of breast cancer.

“Because of Herceptin, I was able to have a complete cure,” she said. “It’s important to fund research—more research—into cancers like triple-negative and metastatic that don’t.”

Read more personal stories about breast cancer from BCRF’s Research Is The Reason campaign here.