Changing the Odds for Patients with Metastatic Breast Cancer

Passionate support for a cause is often rooted in personal experiences. For 30-year-old Josh Newby-Harpole, his passion is finding a cure for metastatic breast cancer after his mother, Theresa, developed the disease in 2010.

In 2013, Josh and Theresa created The Theresa Harpole Foundation for Metastatic Breast Cancer to improve the quality of life for those impacted by metastatic breast cancer and to ultimately find a cure.

Toward that goal, the Harpole Foundation established a partnership with The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital to fund the research of Matthew Ellis, MB, BChir, PhD, a medical oncologist and a world-renowned breast cancer researcher at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.

Theresa felt strongly about supporting metastatic breast cancer research. In Josh and Theresa’s quest to find an organization to fund, they discovered that only two other metastatic breast cancer foundations exist in the country. Soon the idea to start their own foundation crystallized.

“My mom and I have always been close,” Josh says. “When she developed metastatic breast cancer, I had a lot of anger. But then I decided to take action. It’s amazing what you can get done when you want to get involved. I’m dedicated to this cause—it’s my life’s work.”

Theresa's Unusual Cancer Journey

Theresa was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 when she was just 39. At first glance, she seemed to be one of the lucky ones. She caught the cancer early at Stage 0. Yet she tested positive for the BRCA2 gene, which is an inherited abnormal gene mutation that increases risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer before menopause. To be proactive, Theresa had a double mastectomy and hysterectomy.

“Telling my family and friends I had cancer was one of the most difficult things I had to do,” she says. “But it was such a relief I had caught it early, and I thought surgery would take care of it once and for all.”

Second opinions confirmed she didn’t need additional treatment after surgery, although she did require regular follow-up exams.

“After my mom’s surgery, everything went back to normal,” Josh says. “We went on with our lives thinking we were done with cancer.”

But four years later, Theresa’s cancer returned with a vengeance. Theresa was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer that had metastasized to her bones.

“It was like a bad dream you never wake up from,” Theresa says. “I was in shock, and was angry and scared. But I quickly shifted from anger to survival mode.”

She began hormonal therapy, and adjusted her diet and lifestyle to give her a healthy edge. Unfortunately, by May 2011, the cancer had spread to her liver. She participated in a clinical study at Siteman for a new medication that slowed the disease’s progression for a while. When that stopped working, she began another new medication.

While physically she is weaker today, her spirit remains strong to continue fighting for the future of others through research.

Understanding Cancer to Find a Cure

Theresa’s experience with breast cancer shows just how frustratingly complex the disease is. While most women with Stage 0 breast cancer won’t have a cancer recurrence, some will.

“Theresa illustrates the problem with metastatic breast cancer,” Dr. Ellis says. “Sometimes cancer cells have already left the breast before surgery and have embedded themselves elsewhere in the body. Yet some breast cancers never metastasize. Currently, it’s difficult to predict who will develop metastatic breast cancer later and who won’t.”

He says lack of knowledge is what’s hindering metastatic breast cancer treatment.

Dr. Ellis has several breast cancer studies underway and was instrumental in identifying four major subtypes of breast cancer. This knowledge is leading to better understanding of the true origins of the different types of breast cancer.

“The goal is to treat patients by their individual biology,” Dr. Ellis says. “We now have fabulous new tools to look deeper into cancer’s biology. We hope to see the weaknesses in cancer cells to target with drugs. But no single drug fits all. We’re trying to target abnormal biology with the right set of drugs to treat the cancer.”

Research Benefits All Breast Cancer Types

Dr. Ellis says metastatic breast cancer research is critical to help all people with breast cancer—at any stage.

“Patients with metastatic breast cancer need us most because they don’t have many curative treatment options right now. Metastatic breast cancer is the most challenging to treat and it’s illogical to under-fund research in this area. Early detection and prevention studies are important but we need a balance. If we understand the biology of metastatic breast cancer, it will translate to better early detection and treatment methods that will prevent the onset of advanced disease.”

Progress will be made thanks to research support from organizations such as the Theresa Harpole Foundation, Dr. Ellis says. “Josh sees the insufficient focus on the biggest problem in breast cancer— metastatic breast cancer. While government research funding is under stress, people like Josh fill in the gaps.”

He continues: “This is the most exciting time in the breast cancer field. We have energetic research programs going and we’re defining new subtypes of breast cancer. We’re also studying next-generation protein analysis technologies and we’re blowing the lid off the biology. There’s no reason metastatic breast can’t be cured.”

That’s exactly the attitude that inspires Josh to support Dr. Ellis’ research.

“What’s so cool is that Dr. Ellis collaborates with people all over the world,” Josh says. “Doctors and patients can access his research from anywhere so more people can be helped. My mom likely won’t see a cure happen but we’re helping other women. We want to educate future generations and improve the quality of life for those people with metastatic breast cancer.”

Moving Forward

In June, Josh organized the Harpole Foundation’s inaugural “Changing the Odds” music event to support Dr. Ellis’ breast cancer research. Nearly 200 people attended the event, which resulted in $10,000 more for research. More events are planned.

One coming up is a golf tournament to raise money for metastatic breast cancer research. The four-person scramble will be held Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, at Tapawingo National Golf Club in St. Louis. The tournament will include a dinner catered by Joe Boccardi’s Ristorante, a silent auction, and a presentation by Dr. Ellis. For more information, visit metastaticfoundation.org.

Please support the Theresa Harpole Foundation for Metastatic Breast Cancer Fund (#7736) at The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Make a donation online, call 314-286-0600 or email GivingBarnesJewish@bjc.org.

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