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HER2+ Breast Cancer Survivor: ‘I Feel Lucky To Be Part Of A Clinical Trial’

June 10, 2024

Alice Rostkowski leads a full, rich life. As the vice president of Houston Collie Rescue and an active foster to rescue pups, Alice works tirelessly to help rescue collies find loving, “fur-ever” homes. When she learned that she had breast cancer during a routine mammogram in June 2021, her world shifted.

“I felt overwhelmed and confused,” Alice says after receiving a diagnosis of stage II breast cancer. With no immediate family history of cancer and no BRCA gene, she was looking for direction on where to go and what to do next.

Alice was referred to Jorge Darcourt, M.D., MHCM, hematologist and medical oncologist, Texas Oncology–Houston Medical Center and Sugar Land.

“Alice had a very positive attitude right from the start,” says Dr. Darcourt. “The tumor itself was large due to HER2, a protein that causes breast cancer cells to grow quickly, but we have great medications for the treatment of HER2 breast cancer and the tumor had not metastasized.”

The plan for Alice was to undergo six months of chemotherapy and HER2-targeted therapy, followed by a lumpectomy, radiation therapy, and a year of HER2-targeted therapy.

“Cancer is such a formidable opponent,” says Alice. “But I felt comfortable and reassured with Dr. Darcourt from day one. This guy knows what he is doing, and he was always quoting the latest cancer research.

“The cancer journey wasn’t an easy one for me — you’re slogging through hell,” Alice continues. “Chemotherapy was challenging. I was so tired of being sick and tired, but I knew I had to continue to put one foot in front of the other.”

An “ideal candidate”
Dr. Darcourt learned of an upcoming clinical trial for breast cancer patients and immediately thought of Alice as an ideal candidate.

Known as Flamingo-01, this phase III clinical trial is for HER2/neu-positive breast cancer patients who have a high risk of disease recurrence and have completed both neoadjuvant and postoperative adjuvant trastuzumab-based standard of care therapy.

“This research is to evaluate an investigational immunotherapy, which uses GP2, a ‘peptide vaccine’ derived from HER2 that is designed to alert T cells to the presence of cells expressing HER2,” explains Dr. Darcourt. “In simpler terms, it essentially trains the body to recognize the protein that the HER2 gene produces and attacks it, preventing recurrence.”

The study launched in 2022 and is expected to be completed in 2026. To date, the Flamingo-01 clinical trial is being conducted at Texas Oncology locations in Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Sugar Land, and Tyler.

“I feel so lucky”
Alice received her first vaccine in June 2023. She received the vaccine every month for six months and now gets a booster every six months for three years.

“I feel so lucky to have received the call from Dr. Darcourt to be a part of this innovative clinical trial right here in my own community,” says Alice.

The trial took a unique approach with one arm where participants did not know if they received a vaccine or placebo and a second arm in which all participants received the vaccine. Alice was excited to learn through Dr. Darcourt that she was in the second arm.

“I got the vaccine because I want to be protected, but I’m also glad that I could contribute to the vaccine research,” continues Alice. “If there is a downside, it is that each vaccine and boosters require three trips to the doctor for each shot. But Texas Oncology is just around the corner, so it has been easy to go back and forth.”

“From Dr. Darcourt to Melissa, my clinical trial nurse who is as sweet as can be, everyone has been so helpful and supportive,” says Alice. “I am incredibly fortunate that the care team stays current on clinical trials and presented me with this opportunity.”

Hoping for success
As she reflects on her journey thus far, Alice offers the following advice, “Get your mammogram. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anybody, but if you can catch it before it spreads, you’re in much better shape.”

And she doesn’t question her decision to participate in a clinical trial, hoping that it is successful. “I am so thankful for the chance to be part of this incredible medical advancement and jumped at the opportunity when the trial opened to me,” she says.

A leader in cancer research and clinical trials in Texas
“Texas Oncology is a leader in groundbreaking cancer research and clinical trials in Texas, paving the way for new breakthroughs in cancer care,” says Dr. Darcourt. “Discoveries like new drug therapies or combinations of drugs and better screening and diagnosing methods come from clinical trials. Research studies also reveal insights into the disease and ways to deliver better care.”

More than 2,200 Texas Oncology patients are enrolled annually in clinical trials, with more than 150 national clinical trials available at any given time. Texas Oncology has helped develop more than 100 FDA-approved cancer-fighting therapies.

“I’m ready to move on and get healthier and more active,” Alice says, with one final piece of advice to share, “Get all the medical ammunition you can and hit cancer hard. Take advantage of every medical opportunity you are offered.”

To learn more about participating in a clinical trial and the innovative research taking place at Texas Oncology locations across the state, visit TexasOncology.com/clinical-trials.

For upcoming webinars visit www.TexasOncologyFoundation.org.