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How Jill Pushes Through Metastatic Breast Cancer

In early 2017, Jill Haagenson conducted a Google search that would land her on “Good Morning America” less than a year later.

She’d been researching activities for people with cancer and ended up stumbling upon Recovery on Water, or ROW, a Chicago-based nonprofit that runs a rowing team for breast cancer survivors.

Having spent several years sailing competitively, she thought it seemed like the perfect fit — and it was.

“They’ve become some of my best friends,” Jill says of her teammates, all women who, like her, have had breast cancer or still have it. “Plus, when you’re busy and active, you just feel better.”

Jill soon got so involved with the group that she was asked to represent it on a “Good Morning America” segment about exercise and cancer.

“All the benefits of exercise can be a huge asset when you have cancer,” she explains. “And if you can find a team to do it with, even better, because it’s great to have people to help support you, push you and stand beside you.”

Jill is describing her ROW teammates, but she could just as easily be talking about her physicians.

The Importance of a Team

Since 2016, when she learned that her breast cancer had spread to her brain, Jill has seen oncologists from five different hospitals in three different states, including Priya Kumthekar, MD, director of the brain metastases program at the Northwestern Medicine Lou and Jean Malnati Brain Tumor Institute of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

She stays in regular contact with three of these physicians. “They’re my team,” Jill says, explaining that her ability to draw on multiple physicians’ expertise gives her peace of mind. “It’s often hard to make a decision about what to do next, but when you have three doctors you can talk to, it becomes easier.”

Partnership Above Ego

Dr. Kumthekar, who is Jill’s primary neuro-oncologist, agrees. “There are no egos in this kind of situation,” she says. “You just do what’s best for the patient. Often, that means enrolling them in one of the innovative brain metastases clinical trials we’ve opened at Northwestern. On occasion, the right answer is partnering with a physician running a clinical trial at another institution, the same way that other physicians partner with me so that their patients can enroll in clinical trials here.”

Clinical trials are often an important part of the care plan for patients with brain metastases, or cancer that has spread to the brain after starting somewhere else. Existing treatments don’t tend to be very effective against this type of cancer. Through clinical trials, patients can access new therapies that researchers are still in the process of testing. One of the reasons Jill has seen so many physicians is to find trials that might work for her.

Dr. Kumthekar has a special interest in finding new treatments for brain metastases, and she runs more clinical trials for patients with the condition than are available at any other hospital in Chicago. Jill, who lives in Chicago, came to Northwestern Medicine to enroll in one of these trials.

“She responded extraordinarily well to the treatment under investigation,” Dr. Kumthekar says. In fact, the reason Jill left the trial was not because her symptoms worsened, but because the cancer showed slight growth.

When this happened, Dr. Kumthekar partnered with another Chicago-area physician — a neuro-oncologist she knew from across the city — to get Jill into a new trial. She continues to do well.

Dr. Kumthekar, for her part, has finished recruiting patients for the clinical trial, and plans to report the results next year. She’s also running multiple new brain metastases studies at Northwestern Medicine.

Specialized Expertise Is Key

Northwestern Medicine remains Jill’s medical home, and she and Dr. Kumthekar regularly correspond over email and talk on the phone. “I’m a pest,” Jill laughs. “l’ll call Dr. Kumthekar multiple times to talk something over because I want to make sure I really understand everything.”

As a neuro-oncologist, Dr. Kumthekar has special expertise in all of the neurological symptoms of cancer that has spread to the brain. “It becomes a totally different disease,” she says. “And you need neuro-oncologists who can partner with other oncologists to deliver the best, most effective care.”

Out There Doing It

This kind of team-based, specialized care is increasingly important. Every year, about 200,000 new cases of brain metastases are diagnosed in the United States, and researchers think the number is growing. The reasons for this growth are likely twofold. On the one hand, new treatments are allowing more people to live longer with cancer, which gives the disease more time to spread to the brain. On the other hand, increasing awareness and improved diagnostic techniques mean that physicians are diagnosing cases that might previously have gone unnoticed.

Jill continues raising awareness and improving the lives of others with brain metastases. She collaborates with two advocacy groups: MetUp, which is focused on policy change, and METAvivor, which funds research on metastatic breast cancer and supports patients living with the disease.

She also, of course, remains involved with ROW. “Exercise and the endorphin kick is critical to my peace of mind,” she says. “You’re not sitting around dwelling. You’re just out there doing it.”

Learn more about clinical trials for brain metastases at the Northwestern Medicine Lou and Jean Malnati Brain Tumor Institute of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Image by Josh Howard

Priya U. Kumthekar, MD
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Assistant Professor, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Primary Specialty Neuro-Oncology
  • Secondary Specialty Neurology
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