A Pathologist Shares Her Own Breast Cancer Journey and the Promise of Precision Medicine
NORTHFIELD, IL – She was a young mother with an infant son and a 4-year-old daughter when she was diagnosed with one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. Her cancer was HER2-positive, meaning the cancer cells contained a protein that caused them to grow and spread fast. Kimberly H. Allison, MD, FCAP knew what she was up against because she works as a breast pathologist, a physician who specializes in accurately diagnosing breast cancer.
“I was terrified,” said Dr. Allison, director of breast pathology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “I didn’t know if I’d survive this.”
Dr. Allison believes she is alive today because of targeted therapy, or treatment tailored to the unique molecular pathology of your cancer. This can be a game-changer for a patient. There’s no longer a one-size-fits-all treatment in this era of precision medicine. Instead, scientists discovered the genes or proteins that make cancers grow and designed drugs to target them.
For patients with invasive breast cancer, a pathologist’s accurate determination of HER2 status of the tumor is essential to ensuring that those most likely to benefit are offered a HER2-targeted therapy. At the same time, those who are unlikely to benefit can avoid the side effects and costs associated with those drugs.
One of the pathology tests performed on Dr. Allison’s biopsy sample showed increased levels of the HER2 protein. In her molecular lab, Dr. Allison looks for errors in genes that may cause proteins to be incorrectly expressed. This helps identify drugs that can be effective at targeting those mistakes. Would the wonders of personalized medicine work for her?
“I remember realizing I’m about to go down the pathway of the patients I diagnose every day,” she said. “It was surreal to be on the other end of the microscope.”
Personalized, targeted therapy shrunk the 8-centimeter mass in Dr. Allison’s breast and lymph nodes and it completely disappeared by the time she was done with treatment. She owes her survival to effective, personalized treatment based upon accurate pathology.
“I was a patient who was likely to die of metastatic disease at a young age and suddenly I’m cured,” she said.
Dr. Allison is passionate about making sure every patient is accurately tested and that the right patient is treated with the right drug for his or her cancer. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is undoubtedly a scary time of great uncertainty. Not only does your pathologist provide answers to guide treatment, but she can also offer specific details about the diagnosis. Patients can always ask to speak with their pathologist and see their slides to better understand their cancers’ pathology.
Dr. Allison’s story and journey through a documentary-style video
Additional videos that highlight the role pathologists play in accurate diagnoses that lead to effective treatments
Questions to ask your doctor about a cancer diagnosis
About the College of American Pathologists
As the world's largest organization of board-certified pathologists and leading provider of laboratory accreditation and proficiency testing programs, the College of American Pathologists (CAP) serves patients, pathologists, and the public by fostering and advocating excellence in the practice of pathology and laboratory medicine worldwide. For more information, read the CAP Annual Report at cap.org.
Phone: 800-323-4040, ext. 7351