Martha Ontiveros: Benefiting from UCSD’s Breakthrough Treatment

Patient Perspectives

Doctors recommend a yearly mammogram for women over 40, and for one San Diego woman that advice may have saved her life. Her mammogram detected a lump in her breast and fortunately it was cancer free. But several years after that diagnosis, her once clean bill of health was now in doubt.

Martha Ontiveros knew something was wrong. The 45-year old mother of two from Spring Valley had a feeling that the lump in her breast was no longer benign. She was right. Ontiveros had developed cancer. And to make matters worse, she had one of the most aggressive kinds -- HER2-positive breast cancer, so named because it tests positive for a protein called “human epidermal growth factor receptor-2” (HER2) that helps cancer cells grow.

"The first maybe two or three days, I thought about it, do I have to make arrangements for my things to be in order, and then I thought no, because I am pretty sure I'm going to fight this and be done with it and do what I have to do," Ontiveros explained.

After undergoing surgery and chemo, Ontiveros began a weekly regimen of a drug called Herceptin. Hailed as a breakthrough treatment, the medication helps slow the growth of cancer cells in HER2-positive patients and keeps it from coming back.

It's worked for Ontiveros, and she is now cancer free. Unfortunately, for some women battling this form of breast cancer, Herceptin isn't enough. But now there's a new option -- an experimental drug called Tykerb.

Unlike Herceptin, which is given intravenously once a week, Tykerb is a pill, making it easier for women to get the treatment. And because it's a smaller molecule than Herceptin, Tykerb can enter the brain, fighting cancer cells that have spread from the breast.

And for women with terminal HER2 breast cancer, Tykerb can lengthen their survival time by as much as 50 percent. Researchers are now studying whether the drug can keep treatable breast cancer from coming back. And that's hopeful news for Ontiveros.

"I still have a small kid. I have a teenager and a smaller kid, and I want be there, so whatever it takes," Ontiveros said.

The Moores UCSD Cancer Center expects to start offering the new drug soon. Although still in process for FDA approval, UCSD patients have advanced access it to it through a clinical trial.