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Clinical Trial Helps Hamburg Woman Defeat Aggressive Breast Cancer


When Rochelle Eroh was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, she decided to participate in a clinical trial because she had no other options.

When Rochelle Eroh felt a lump in her breast in August 2014, she was concerned. But it seemed like déjà vu, so she put off seeing her doctor. "I'd had a double lumpectomy before, and both lumps were benign," she says. "I thought it was the same thing this time, but it wasn’t."

By the time Eroh, 45, of Hamburg, was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in December and referred for treatment to Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) hematologist oncologist Nicholas Lamparella, DO, the tumor had grown from stage 1 to stage 2.

Triple-negative breast cancer tends to be more aggressive than others. "It also differs because its cells don't have estrogen or progesterone receptors that feed some breast cancers, and they don't over-produce the cancer-promoting protein HER2," says Lamparella, who practices with LVPG Hematology Oncology-1240 Cedar Crest. "It responds to standard chemotherapy, but not to the anti-hormonal and anti-HER2 treatments (such as Tamoxifen or Herceptin) we use to treat other breast cancers."

Numb after hearing her diagnosis, Eroh couldn't face going back to work. She cried for hours at home, but gradually a new feeling came over her. "Sometime that day I decided that cancer wasn't taking me," she says. "I decided to beat it."

Experimental treatment offers hope

Soon thereafter, Lamparella told Eroh about a large clinical trial involving LVHN and more than 200 other medical institutions. The study investigated two promising cancer treatments given before surgery (neoadjuvant chemotherapy drugs) aimed at women with triple-negative breast cancer.

One was carboplatin, which damages DNA in cancer cells and makes it harder for them to repair themselves. The other was a PARP-inhibitor called veliparib that also blocks DNA repair in cancer cells.

"Based on the size of her tumor and its various characteristics, she was a candidate for enrollment," Lamparella says.

Eroh entered the study in January 2015, hoping to help researchers determine whether the two novel treatments – used along with standard chemotherapy – would safely shrink tumors before surgery. The goal was for her and other women to undergo less invasive surgery and boost their chances of a disease-free life afterwards.

'Nothing to lose'

"I decided to participate in the trial because I trust my doctors who thought it was a good idea," Eroh says. "I had an aggressive cancer that doesn't respond to hormone treatments, so I had nothing to lose."

Because the trial was a randomized, double-blind study, neither she nor Lamparella knew whether she received the experimental drugs with her regular chemotherapy treatments or a sugar pill (placebo). But the results were dramatic. Eroh's tumor shrank to half its original size, and in August 2015 she received a partial mastectomy from LVHN surgical oncologist Lori Alfonse, DO, with LVPG Surgical Oncology-1240 Cedar Crest, and radiation therapy from radiation oncologist Jeanette Blauth, MD, with Allentown Radiation Oncology Associates.

Today, Eroh is disease-free and grateful to be healthy. "It feels great to feel good," she says.

An 'awesome' experience

One of the advantages of a clinical trial is that patients typically receive more care at no additional cost. "The study paid for some tests I normally wouldn't have had," Eroh says. "I got better than the current standard of care (chemotherapy alone), and my medical team was bigger."

Trials also give patients a chance to pay it forward. "We're thankful that people like Rochelle participated and are helping develop the treatments of the future," Lamparella says. If the final results show the two drugs are effective and safe, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) will likely approve them for use in treating triple-negative breast cancer.

"Hopefully this will become the new standard of care," Eroh says. "I would encourage other women to choose a clinical trial. My experience at LVHN was awesome, and I couldn't see doing it any other way."

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