When Maribeth Kammert first learned she had cancer in 2015, her world came to a stop. It was early stage breast cancer.
“I was at Beauty Brands with my mom when I got the call. I went into the bathroom because I didn’t know how I would react. I didn’t cry,” said Maribeth. “I just had this instinct that I was going to take care of it, and God was going to take care of me. And if the outcome wasn’t what I wanted, I’d be okay with that.”
She and her oncologist, Dr. Jacob Smeltzer at Saint Luke’s East Hospital, came up with a treatment plan. Maribeth had a lumpectomy that resulted in clean margins. After her body healed from surgery, she had four rounds of chemo and 30 treatments of radiation. Maribeth’s follow-up mammogram showed no signs of cancer.
But in 2018, Maribeth came down with what she thought was pneumonia. Dr. Smeltzer ordered a CT scan to make sure the symptoms weren’t related to her cancer.
On her way home, Maribeth’s phone rang with news of the results. Her heart was immersed in fluid.
She turned the car around to head back to the hospital for emergency surgery.
Once the fluid was drained, a PET scan unveiled three problematic lymph nodes in her chest. Doctors performed a biopsy to examine the tissue closely.
Her husband, Jack, was by her side when Dr. Smeltzer delivered the news no one wishes to hear. Maribeth had stage four triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive and often deadly form of cancer that spreads rapidly with fewer treatment options available.
“What would you do if it was your wife?” Jack asked Dr. Smeltzer.
He recommended Saint Luke’s Hospital Koontz Center for Advanced Breast Cancer, the only metastatic breast cancer specialty clinic in the region. The Koontz Center combines personalized treatments with advanced genomics and immunotherapy. Maribeth and Jack met with Dr. Timothy Pluard, medical director of Saint Luke’s Cancer Institute, and the rest of the Koontz Center team.
“Dr. Pluard explained my condition and everything that came with it; how it was the most aggressive type you could get,” Maribeth said. “I looked at him and said, ‘I’m going to be your miracle.’ He replied with a smile, ‘Okay, I will take that.’”
In early 2019, Dr. Pluard enrolled Maribeth in a clinical trial for patients with triple-negative breast cancer looking at the combined effectiveness of a targeted medication (SGN-LIV1A) and an immunotherapy treatment (Keytruda).
Over the next two years, Maribeth was to complete 35 cycles of the special IV infusions.
“Maribeth possesses a jovial and positive attitude,” said Dr. Pluard. “Certainly, her exceptional and prolonged response to the clinical trial also stands out. At the Koontz Center for Advanced Breast Cancer, we aim to have a clinical trial option every time we need to make a treatment decision. We intentionally seek out trials to have available for our patients. We have participated in clinical trials that have led to the approval of four new drugs for MBC in the last 18 months. Clinical trials are how we improve outcomes for patients with MBC. Every standard treatment of today became so based upon a clinical trial.”
Every night, Maribeth and Jack say a healing prayer before bed to find comfort and peace.
Between some side effects and a weakened immune system, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. But she was determined to fight cancer and become an exception to the statistics.
“What is so wonderful about the Koontz Center is that it is dedicated to metastatic breast cancer,” Maribeth said. “You receive support from doctors, nurses, chaplains, nutritionists, and psychologists. Every month you can join an educational forum and gain insights to the most recent clinical advancements.”
That fall, she and her husband participated in the Koontz Center’s annual metastatic breast cancer retreat. They formed close friendships with ten other couples going through the same thing.
“They do miraculous things during that weekend retreat. All of us attendees got so close,” said Maribeth. “We have lost six of our 11 friends from the retreat, but we keep in touch with each other and those who have lost their loved ones.”
About a year and a half into the clinical trial, Maribeth’s scans found no evidence of disease— an extraordinary outcome one could only hope to have with such a deadly form of cancer. Today, after completing the full two-year trial, the 61-year-old is doing remarkably well.
“The median survival with stage four TNBC is 18 months, and Maribeth is now more than two years on first-line therapy with no sign of disease. It’s remarkable,” said Dr. Pluard. “She is doing great! In fact, she just returned from Disney World.”
“My tumors shrunk and are barely visible,” said Maribeth. “I praise God because I know it is a healing from Him.”
Maribeth is grateful for the love and support of her husband and two grown children throughout the entire process.
After learning her results, one woman’s husband from the fall retreat congratulated Maribeth on her success with the trial.
“He said his wife had to be healed on the other side, in heaven, and I needed to be healed here because my job isn’t done,” Maribeth recalls. “I do believe that I have a purpose that I am supposed to be doing here.”
“It’s horrible when you hear you have cancer, but my best friend and I feel it has been a blessing in many ways. You get to share your journey with other people and help them. We are a sisterhood supporting each other.”
Visit the Koontz Center website to learn more about the dual approach to care for advanced breast cancer.