Elaine Spangler: Routine Mammogram Leads to Metastatic Breast Cancer Diagnosis

“When I go to Fox Chase, it feels like I am going to see family, not just my clinical care team.”
‐Elaine Spangler

In early February, 2022, I noticed a small lump in my breast. In the past I had breast cysts, and I assumed that was what this new lump would be. Based on my 25-plus years of work in medical, and specifically, cancer research, I made sure I went for my regular mammogram every year.

A State of Disbelief

At the screening mammogram appointment, the technicians told me that I needed a diagnostic mammogram right away, but I was not too worried. I know that this could be routine. However, my confidence was short-lived. After the diagnostic mammogram, my doctors performed a biopsy that showed that I had breast cancer, which was later found to be HER2-positive.

At first, we thought the cancer was early stage, maybe stage I or II. However, after a second biopsy of the lymph nodes around my breast came back positive, they knew it was more advanced. A bone scan revealed that the cancer had already spread to my bones and my liver.

Because of what I do for a living, I know more about cancer than the average person. When they broke this news to me and my wife Mary Beth, who I have been with for 33 years, we were both devastated and in disbelief. How could this happen to me? I was truly blindsided when I was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer.

Heading to Fox Chase

Elaine Spangler with Fox Chase Cancer Center nurse, Judy Scotto, at the 2023 Paws for the Cause event.

I was seeing a community oncologist up to this point, which was fine for the yearly scans. However, as soon as we got the results of my bone scan, my nurse, who was very familiar with clinical trials, called me from her car, as she was in labor, and recommended that I go to Fox Chase Cancer Center.

A nurse navigator at Fox Chase put me in contact with Dr. Allison Aggon, a surgical oncologist. After she looked over the information on my case, she told me I wasn’t a candidate for surgery and sent me to see Dr. Jason A. Incorvati, a medical oncologist at Fox Chase.

Dr. Incorvati has a great depth of knowledge about clinical trials. He recommended an aggressive treatment and that I enroll in a clinical trial right away.

Clinical Trial Enrollment

The trial is testing a combination, which is administered every three weeks, of an immunotherapy drug called atezolizumab, which is also known by its brand name Tecentriq, plus trastuzumab and pertuzumab, which are also known by their brand names Herceptin and Perjeta. They both target HER2-positive breast cancer.

Because I was passionate about my work in clinical trials, I knew enrolling in one was the right decision. I remember when my son Matthew was little he would ask about my work day when I got home. “Mama, did you find a cure for cancer yet?” he’d ask.

“Not yet,” I would tell him, “but we’re working on it and we are making discoveries every day that improve people’s lives!” I firmly believe that and I wanted to contribute to that progress.

A Feeling of Support

Today, I am stable and continue on my clinical trial. My team feels very positive about my response and I continue to feel very supported. I still find it hard to be the patient instead of the person coordinating the clinical trial, but everyone at Fox Chase has always treated me with such respect and empathy. My clinical trial nurses are the most wonderful, caring, supportive people on Earth. They are simply amazing!

When I go to Fox Chase, it feels like I am going to see family, not just my clinical care team. I feel this about everyone there, from the nurses to the doctors to the people working in the cafeteria. Being surrounded by caring, positive, helpful staff goes a long way in building a healing community that patients can grab onto.

Elaine with her family at the 2023 Paws for the Cause event.

Giving Back

To that end, I have been really fortunate to also join the volunteer staff at Fox Chase so I can start to give back what has been given to me — hope. That’s all a patient can ask for.

In September, I served as the patient ambassador for Paws for the Cause 2023, Fox Chase’s ever-popular dog walk fundraiser, along with my rescue, Daisy.

My volunteer work makes me appreciate the care I have received at Fox Chase and makes me remember the words of Ben Franklin: “What good can we do today?”

Learn more about treatment for breast cancer and enrollment in clinical trials at Fox Chase Cancer Center.