Elevating hope through breast cancer innovation

A breakthrough in diagnostic testing is helping to improve outcomes for patients like Enisa Besic, who is receiving new targeted treatment to combat what’s known as HER2-low breast cancer.

Enisa's story: Elevating hope in HER2-low breast cancer

Hear Enisa speak about her emotional journey with breast cancer and her hope for living a longer, healthier life through groundbreaking innovation.

Enisa is one mighty “Majka.” At 62, this joyful mom and grandmother - or Majka, as her grandkids call her in her native Bosnian - has survived genocide in her homeland. She moved across the world for a new life with her family. And for 23 years, she has persevered through the challenges of breast cancer. 

In 2022, however, it seemed that time might be running out. Enisa was no longer responding to treatment. 

Her oncologist searched for alternatives, anything new that might help Enisa continue the fight. What her doctor discovered just in time was a targeted therapy that had been approved in the U.S. to treat a new subcategory of breast cancer patients whose tumours express lower levels of a protein known as HER2.

Before this new approval, patients in this category, like Enisa, seemed to have no great treatment options, with the exception of some chemotherapies with significant side effects. Innovation in diagnostic testing has now made it possible for pathologists to determine if a patient’s level of HER2 expression can be classified as “HER2-low,” opening up access to this new treatment.

This was great news for Enisa and her family, as pathology results showed her tumours were HER2-low, making her eligible for this breakthrough personalised treatment.

While the effects from treatment aren’t always easy, Enisa is again enjoying baking traditional Yugoslavian desserts with her daughter, family game nights with the grandkids and swims in the pool.

Enisa’s breast cancer story starts in 2000, just as her family was relocating to the United States from Slovenia, where they had fled during war in Bosnia. She noticed a walnut-sized lump in her right breast, which was diagnosed as cancer. The lump was removed and she underwent radiation.

“I thought I was done with cancer,” Enisa says.

For 14 years, she felt great. But in 2014, when she was living with her son’s family in Texas, Enisa started suffering from low back pain. Her cancer had returned and spread to her bones.

The family sold their house to pay for treatment, which included radiation. Soon Enisa was feeling good again.

Two years later, the pain returned. While she had insurance, scans were going to cost Enisa $15,000, so she made a plan. To keep her children from worrying, she told them she was flying to Croatia for vacation, when in fact was returning for a scan at one-tenth the cost.

The news was bad.

“I had cancer throughout my bones and two spots on my liver. The doctor told me I was dying and I needed to return to the United States if I had any chance to live. I didn’t know how to tell my children on the phone that I was dying.”

Unable to walk, Enisa returned to the U.S., this time to Tucson, Arizona, to live with her daughter, Aida Subasic, her son-in-law and two of her four grandchildren.

“When I picked her up from the airport, she was down to 90 pounds. She was in so much pain. I didn't even recognise her,” says Aida, a nurse.

The first doctor Enisa saw in a Tucson emergency room asked if hospice had been recommended, which stunned the family.

Enisa says great luck brought her to Dr. Sima Ehsani, an oncologist at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, who leads breast cancer research. Dr. Ehsani told Enisa that she still had options for treatment. Enisa was not giving up, but the situation was dire.

“Almost every single bone in her spine was involved, and she couldn’t walk or move the lower extremities,” Dr. Ehsani recalls.

The next day Enisa was in surgery. Tumours were pressing on the nerves in her neck and there was a high chance of paralysis. Metal plates were placed in her neck and back, and she started targeted therapy, radiation and endocrine therapy.

Fortunately, surgery and drug therapy were successful, and for more than four years, Enisa did very well, enjoying life with her beautiful family. That was until 2022, when treatment stopped working, and Dr. Ehsani discovered that the pathology of Enisa’s cancer made her eligible for this powerful new advancement in personalised treatment.

While treatments have left Enisa tired in the days following infusion, her tumours have shrunk, her pain is gone and side effects of treatment have eased.

Enisa’s powerful love for family and optimistic outlook have carried her through every turn. While challenges lay ahead, she cherishes each joyful moment.

“Every day is important for me. I am grateful that I am here. I’m so happy to be alive.”

What advice does Enisa have for other cancer patients? “There is always hope. New tests and treatments are coming out all the time. Never give up.”

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