Sharon’s Story: Patient with Aggressive Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Participates in Clinical Trial, Now Disease-Free

October 29, 2021
Photo of patient Sharon Howell
Sharon Howell participated in the national I-SPY clinical trial for triple-negative breast cancer.

Harlem resident Sharon Howell, 64, had an ongoing joke with her doctor’s office whenever she would come in for her annual mammogram. 

“When I’m leaving, I say, ‘Don’t call me, and I won’t call you either,’” says the Jamaica native, with a laugh. 

After receiving her latest mammogram this past April, to her shock, she received that much-dreaded phone call. The exam had revealed a lump in her left breast. Sharon had no breast pain or other symptoms, but further testing revealed triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive type of breast cancer more prevalent in Black women like Sharon. 

The name “triple-negative breast cancer” refers to the lack of receptors — the female hormones estrogen and progesterone, as well as a protein called HER2 — commonly found in breast cancer. It accounts for about 10% to 15% of all breast cancers, and has a tendency to grow and spread faster than other disease types. The absence of these receptors on triple-negative cancer cells also means that patients aren’t eligible for certain treatment options, such as hormone therapies or anti-HER2 antibodies. 

“Ms. Howell was presented with a large, high-risk, triple-negative breast cancer, which is a cancer that is very aggressive,” says Dawn Hershman, MD, co-leader of the Cancer Population Science Program at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) and director of breast oncology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. “We know now that a really good way to treat these cancers is to try and shrink them before patients go into surgery.”

As part of Sharon’s treatment team, Dr. Hershman suggested that she enroll in a series of national clinical trials called I-SPY, which evaluate new ways of treating breast cancer. Specifically, I-SPY attempts to bring promising treatments being tested in patients with advanced disease into earlier disease settings. 

Sharon agreed to participate and underwent standard chemotherapy with the addition of two experimental targeted drugs. After three months, imaging tests showed no more evidence of cancer left in her body. Instead of continuing chemotherapy for three more months, she went straight for her lumpectomy in early September. 

“She’s the perfect example of how this clinical trial can really help a patient,” says Dr. Hershman. “Not only was she able to get the newest, most exciting treatments out there, but because she had such a good response, she was able to avoid excessive treatments that she didn’t need.”

Dr. Hershman notes that her encouraging response to the novel treatments also translates to a lower likelihood of her cancer coming back in the future. Sharon still feels some lingering side effects, such as numbness in her fingers and feet, but overall she remains optimistic about returning to her normal self soon. 

“My advice to women out there would be to make sure you do your yearly mammogram,” she says. “That’s number one.”