A Different Vaccination Question

This isn’t a post about vaccinating babies; I’ve already covered that. And it isn’t a post about vaccinating teenage girls against the HPV virus to prevent cervical cancer. Speaking of… Have you seen this Saturday Night Live skit, Lil’ Poundcake, the doll that administers HPV injections.

Ah, good times.

This post is about vaccinating me.

For many years (12?), the University of Washington Tumor Vaccine Group has been working on a vaccination to prevent Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor 2-positive (HER2+) Breast Cancer. My cancer was HER2+. I am at risk for recurrence, and a candidate for the trial.

Now, here comes my terribly un-technical understanding of the trial. HER2+ cancer cells have more receptor sites that enable them to grow and divide faster. The folks at UW have isolated the bits of the HER2+ part of the cancer cell and are mixing them with an agent in an effort to get the immune system to recognize and kill these cells.

The purpose of this trial is to find out how much of the agent makes it most effective. Everyone enrolled will get three injections of the vaccination and varying amounts of the agent, 28 days apart.

My oncologist suggested I look into the trial, but participation is up to me. I’ve had the paperwork on my desk for 6 weeks and I can’t decide. Here are the issues I’m thinking about:

  • At 6.5 years past my diagnosis, I am fairly low risk for a recurrence. Do I really need the vaccine?
  • Will I cause myself harm? Will long-term side effects appear later?
  • When I was on Herceptin, a miracle drug for patients with HER 2+ cancer my heart showed a rapid and alarming drop in ejection fraction, pumping capacity, which caused my oncologist to discontinue the drug immediately. My heart recovered but no one knows if we did any long-term damage.
  • If I don’t get the vaccine and have a recurrence then it’s too late. No second chances.

What would you do?

3 thoughts on “A Different Vaccination Question

  1. Lani

    Wow, tough question. The part that troubles me is the part – The folks at UW have isolated the bits of the HER2+ part of the cancer cell and are mixing them with an agent in an effort to get the immune system to recognize and kill these cells. How do they decide if it was the right amount? If you never get the cancer again? But I thought after 6.5 years your risk was slight. If you do get it they were wrong?
    How do they know the agent will kill only those cells?
    I understand that any research to stop this terrible disease is essential but you also have 2 young children now and anything that might jeopardize the time you have with them seems unwise. Just my two cents.

  2. Patricia Smith

    What a tough decision. It seems like if you felt confident it would do no harm, and might do good, then it could be a good decision to try it. Maybe you need more info. Can you interview the researchers doing the trial to learn more about the agents they are using? Data! Statistics!
    Good luck. The best part of this post is that at 6.5 years out, your risk is getting low. Yay.

  3. Mom

    Generally I am all in favor of trials and vaacines. But I’m not crazy about this one. The thought of re-infecting, re-injecting you with even an inert cancer is not a good thing in my mind. You are so sensitive to everything. Walk a flour molecule past your body and you flare. I had completely forgotten about the heart issue. That fixes the negative in my mind. I’d pass on this one.

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