Immunotherapy giving hope to those with aggressive breast cancer

In the quest for a cure or even an option for therapy to conquer cancer, there are researchers working tirelessly and patients willing to try anything to survive.

Meet Melanie Moreno. A single mother, who on her birthday five years ago, got quite a surprise -- a cancer diagnosis. She got the diagnosis on January 26--her 36th birthday.

“Obviously fear, nervous. I was very numb to it all. Just kind of keep going, keep going, keep going," Moreno said.

She took chemotherapy and radiation.

“I try not to focus so much on the emotional part of it and just try to think about the reasonable next steps and the logical moving forward," she said.

But what happened next was far from logical. Moreno took all the required treatments, she lost her hair, she was nauseated and tired. Yet after she was finished, her cancer had actually grown and spread in her lungs.

“I did another check-up and then they found there was another spot, so it seemed no matter what I was doing, it wasn’t enough … all this while working fulltime," she said.

“So these areas near the lung tissue represent cancer involving the lymph nodes," Dr Lisa Flaum, Northwestern Medicine, Lurie Cancer Center oncologist, said.

She was told to get her things in order. She had an aggressive form of breast cancer called triple negative.

“So triple negative means that it is negative for estrogen, negative for progesterone and negative for HER2, and it is a particularly, potentially aggressive variety of breast cancer," Dr. Flaum said.

But Moreno wasn’t ready to give up. She came to Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center where they offered her the chance to be in a clinical trial testing two immunotherapy drugs already approved to treat lung and melanoma cancers.

“We’re always happy when we have something that’s appropriate for the patient in front of us, especially the ones who have more limited options, especially those that have the cancers with fewer traditional treatment options," Dr. Flaum said.

“The immunotherapy drugs work by different mechanisms to help the body’s immune system fight and target and eliminate cancer. So, sort of looking at cancer treatment a little bit differently than standard chemotherapy," Dr. Flaum said.

Oncologist Dr. Lisa Flaum says there is a role for immunotherapy, but sometimes it kicks the immune system into overdrive creating other problems in the body," Dr. Flaum said.

“Because it’s harnessing the body’s immune system, people can get inflammation in different parts of the body. So, they can get inflammation in the lungs, the liver, the colon, the skin, which can be potentially problematic.

Moreno experienced no negative side effects. So, for two years she got infusions of the immunotherapy drugs, while doctors monitored her disease. Remember all of those lymph nodes swollen with cancer?

“This is her most recent CT scan on the right after almost two years on the clinical trial and all of those lymph nodes have shrunk or nearly disappeared," Dr. Flaum said.

“We’re good, we’re good! And I’m still here!” Moreno said.

This clinical trial is wrapping up and another one will begin shortly. The funds for the research are donated by the local charity Dancing with Chicago Celebrities. WGN has long been a supporter and Dina Bair is a co-founding board member.

If you’d like to come to the event, support ongoing cancer research and help other like Moreno, check out