Gretchen Swift & Tammy Nicola
Gretchen Swift and Tammy Nicola aren’t just “cancer buddies”; together, their helping make medical history. Both women have been diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer – the disease’s most aggressive form and the one that doctors don’t yet have a cure for. But the secret to finding a cure may be in Gretchen and Tammy’s blood. As part of a clinical study for Cynvenio, their blood is drawn every three months for a two year period for the genomic analysis of tumor cells in support of cancer precision medicine strategies.
Gretchen and Tammy first met through their sons who became friends in middle school. Tammy was first to be diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, so when Gretchen was diagnosed, her son asked Tammy if she could talk to Gretchen about it. The two have been “cancer buddies” ever since.
“It helps to connect with people like you,” says Tammy. “A lot of people don’t realize that there are four types of breast cancer.”
Triple negative breast cancer is so called because it contains none of the three receptors which most commonly fuel breast cancer: estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2. Most successful cancer treatments target these receptors.
Gretchen and Tammy say that it can be hard living with this form of breast cancer but they’re thankful it affected them later in life. Triple negative breast cancer is known for showing up in young women following a pregnancy and it is often difficult to diagnose. Symptoms are masked by the pregnancy.
Cynvenio’s LiquidBiopsy study hopes to find a way to treat this type of cancer and majorly decrease the death rate from triple negative breast cancer. Gretchen and Tammy make the long trip from Great Falls to Cynvenio’s lab in Las Angeles not only for their own sake, but for other women who are affected and will become affected by this terrible disease.
“This is how they find cures – people putting themselves out there,” says Gretchen.
“It gives us hope,” says Tammy.
Cancer typically isn’t genetic. Only 5-10% of breast and colon cancer cases are caused by changes in a single gene, and not everyone who inherits such a gene will get cancer; however, they are at a much greater risk.
According to Sharon Hannah, colon cancer runs in the family. The first time she learned about the disease was when a relative on her father’s side died from it. Later, her father was diagnosed. Doctors were able to treat it but it resurfaced decades later and ended up taking his life as well.
Sharon knew how dangerous the disease was and that it ran in her family, so when she started having pains in her abdomen, she should have had a check-up. She didn’t.
“I put off the doctor for the better part of a year,” Sharon admits. “I shouldn’t have.”
Sharon had always been healthy, she rarely got sick, and the pain only affected her on occasion. She kept telling herself she was fine but the pain was a nagging reminder that she wasn’t.
“Cancer is often a silent killer,” says Sharon. “I was lucky to have warning.”
Sharon’s fears were confirmed when she finally did see a doctor. Like her father, she had colon cancer.
Despite the delay in diagnosis, doctors were able to treat Sharon’s cancer with surgery and chemo.
Sharon is now a lot more conscious of her health and regularly schedules check-ups. She encourages others to do the same.
“You have to listen to your body,” she says.