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Debbie Duclos

Study participant benefits from “personalized chemotherapy” for breast cancer patients

What if an ultrasound could detect if a patient’s cancer treatment was working after just one week of therapy?

Registered nurse and health care consultant Debbie Duclos, 42, was diagnosed with locally advanced cancer in her left breast in January 2015. She has been participating in a Terry Fox-funded study for the last five months, and is tested after every cycle of chemotherapy to measure the effectiveness of her treatment.

Using quantitative ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Dr. Gregory Czarnota and his team at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre are working to make “personalized chemotherapy” a reality for patients with advanced breast cancer.

“We’ve recently been able to demonstrate within a week of somebody starting their chemotherapy what the ultimate outcome is going to be six months later,” says Dr. Czarnota. “We know whether the tumour is going to potentially respond, or whether it’s not responding to that particular chemotherapy.”

Approximately one in nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives. Patients typically receive “one-size fits all” chemotherapy treatments that are only effective for a certain percentage of the population, says Dr. Czarnota. His team is tracking whether or not a patient’s chemotherapy is having its intended effect.

“It’s been very helpful for me to see progression of the treatments helping the area out,” says Duclos, whose tumour has shrunk from the size of a lime to a small white kidney bean after five rounds of chemotherapy.

“My tumour has shrunk, big time,” she adds. “Seeing the progression of things through the lens of the research team in the study I’ve been participating in has encouraged me along. Although it’s not diagnostic, it certainly been very good.”

Upon completing chemotherapy treatments, Duclos will undergo a mastectomy on her left breast followed by radiation. The self-described positive and very active woman has experienced minimal treatment side effects and continues to be an avid gardener, golfer, and traveller.

Improving the lives and treatment plans of patients like Duclos is one of the main goals of this study, notes Dr. Czarnota.

“The goal is that if someone is receiving an ineffective drug, to switch it to one that is effective – or even a different type of therapy that is effective,” says Dr. Czarnota. “We want to make chemotherapy administration much better, make outcomes better, and boost patient morale. This technology stands to change the way that things are done in the medical field in short order.”