Defying the diagnosis: Local mom turns to unconventional treatment to beat breast cancer
by Deni Hawkins | Thursday, March 28th 2019
MERIDIAN, Idaho (CBS 2 News) — Last summer, a Meridian mother was diagnosed with a rare form of stage four breast cancer, and was told she had less than a year to live. Today, the news is much better: her cancer is in remission, and she says it’s thanks in large part to an alternative treatment that helped her body fight back against the disease.
At 37 years old, Heather Giao was a healthy wife and mother, working as a school psychologist. Her days were filled with work, household chores, and keeping up with her two dogs and her two-year-old son.
“Here I was, completely healthy, working full-time, going to the gym, raising a toddler,” she said. “Somehow I managed to get stage four cancer.”
Given that Heather had no medical issues or genetic history with the disease, her diagnosis came as a complete shock. Not only was it cancer, but a rare form of stage four breast cancer called ‘triple negative,’ which doctors told her had no specific or targeted treatment that had proven effective.
While doctors could try attacking the cancer with chemotherapy, she was told that it only had about a 20 percent chance of working, if that. In addition, Heather knew that fighting chemo would destroy her quality of life for what she had left of it.
“Without treatment, I had six months to live. With treatment, I had a year,” she said. “When you’re told you don’t have long to live and you have a little child who depends on you, that’s when it gets quite difficult. So, if I did only have one year to live, I wanted it to be a good one. I wanted there to be good memories.”
Searching for hope
Knowing that her life was quite literally on the clock, Heather said she had to balance her emotions with a sense of urgency to find any possible alternatives.
“There was a lot of crying,” she said. “I would set timers and say, ‘okay you have 30 minutes to cry, and then you need to stop because it’s not really productive.'”
Heather talked with countless doctors and specialists, but quickly realized that every step of the process took time — time she didn’t have. While she didn’t qualify for clinical trials, Heather kept looking for alternative treatment options.
“I couldn’t wait for the doctors to get me in, for insurances to do prior authorizations,” she said. “I had to be my own advocate. It really became a full-time job.”
Ultimately, she got connected with an oncologist in Berkeley, California, who had had previous success with patients battling late-stage cancer diagnoses. While she wasn’t certain about the procedure initially, she started doing research searching for any sign of hope.
“My entire family was against it,” Heather said.
“We were trying to talk her out of it,” her husband, John Gaio, said. “It was scary, and unknown.”
SEF Chemo: An alternative to traditional chemotherapy
Dr. Kenneth Matsumura has spent more than 20 years working to develop a treatment that, in essence, eliminates the side effects of chemotherapy, thus allowing a person’s body to fight back against the cancer. Side-effect free chemo, or SEF, works to protect the body’s immune and bone marrow cells with an antidote that counteracts the potentially damaging nature of chemo.
“The immune cells in the body actually can participate in the killing of cancer cells during chemotherapy,” Matsumura said. “We reach remission — long-term remission in stage four diseases, in cancers like lung cancer that are considered totally hopeless. Instead of a 20 percent, 30 percent, maybe even 40 percent response rate to chemo, we were seeing nearly 90 to 100 percent response rates.”
Even so, Dr. Matsumura said that he had hesitations about taking on Heather’s case, as he didn’t want to give her false hope.
“Her case actually worried me quite a bit,” Matsumura said. “It wasn’t just the type of cancer she had that was known to be kind of hopeless, but the way it had spread really worried me.”
Despite the concern that he may be giving her false hope for the future, Matsumura said that meeting Heather and her family changed his mind.
“She came to us, she had done all of her own research,” he said. “Watching them, it just…I debated whether I should take on a case this difficult, but after meeting them, you know, what else can you do?”
Despite the fact that the treatment wouldn’t be covered by insurance, Heather didn’t need any convincing to take the risk, knowing that it could give her a second chance at life.
“He said, ‘you know I can’t guarantee that I’ll cure your cancer, but what I can promise you is that I’ll preserve your quality of life while I try,'” Heather said.
Defying the diagnosis
Heather immediately started flying out for treatments every other week, and after her first two rounds of SEF Chemotherapy with Dr. Matsumura, she had a tumor removed from her breast.
“I had surgery that Friday, and the following Monday I was back at work,” she said. “Then a week later I was back in chemo with no adverse side effects whatsoever.”
Her family and friends accompanied her on her trips for treatment, staying strong beside her every step of the way. Amazingly, after just four rounds of chemo, the amount of cancer in Heather’s body had decreased by 80 percent.
“The cancer was essentially almost completely gone with the exception of one spot still by my left lung, and one lymph node,” she said.
Heather would continue treatments with Dr. Matsumura and his staff for the next several months, but the days in between became filled with very normal moments back at home in Meridian.
“Looking at me, nobody would ever know I was fighting stage four cancer” she said. “I didn’t lose my hair. I still maintained my appetite, I still had my energy. I was still able to work, I participate on a bowling league.”
“It’s let her live a life,” her husband John added. “She goes to work, we can eat dinner together, she can play with her son.”
The months spent in treatment weren’t easy. Heather longed to be home with her family on the days she was traveling, and still had to make preparations in case things took a turn for the worse, and her time with her son became limited again. She stuffed a Build-A-Bear with a recording of her voice inside of it, and created little videos and mementos for her son to have for all of the major milestones in his life.
But after just 11 rounds of treatment (many of which Dr. Matsumura said were just for good measure), Heather heard words she never expected to hear just months before.
“Four months after receiving chemotherapy, I had a CT scan, and there was no sign of cancer. Whatsoever,” she said.
Pushing forward with purpose
Within six months, Heather went from being told she had six months to live to being told her cancer was in remission.
“I got to say ‘I told you so’ to all of my family members,'” she said.
“In the end it was absolutely worth it,” John said of the treatment. “I’m just so thankful that she’s been able to be the wife and mother that I know she wants to be. It’s more than I could have asked for with what she’s been dealt.”
Although she won’t be completely in the clear for a few years, Heather says she’s unbelievably grateful for a second chance at life, and all of the little things she once took for granted.
“Our credit card bill is through the roof and we hate paying that every single month, and know it’s going to be awhile before it’s paid off, but it’s just, it is what it is,” she said “It’s okay, and I’m just thankful I’m going to be around to pay a bill.”
Now, Heather and her family say they’re looking forward to getting back to their life. Moving forward, she also hopes to be an advocate for others who have been diagnosed with their own worst-case scenario and who may not have access to the resources to help get treatment.
“Your life doesn’t have to be horrible when you’re fighting cancer. It really doesn’t.”