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Former high school principal finds correct treatment for metastatic breast cancer

In the world of breast cancer survival, Shirley Mertz has come a long way by battling for 17 years--a long time to constantly be thinking about what treatment will come next and what the next scan results will show.

Mertz, 62, former principal of Fremd High School in Palatine, has metastatic breast cancer. Like many patients who also live with the disease, she has endured many emotional ups and downs.

Dr. Olopade selected treatments that reversed the course of Shirley's cancer.

Metastasis is cancer that has spread beyond an initial site in the body to distant organs. Some forms of breast cancer can be cured, but metastatic cancer survivors never get that final visit to the doctor. Many live with their cancer as a chronic condition and must be vigilant to keep it under control.  

For the last several years, Mertz has been "dancing with NED," which in radiological jargon means that her scans have shown No Evidence of Disease.

"I am not cured, and I know I will need treatment for the rest of my life, but I have been blessed," Mertz said. "I know that I would not be here today if it were not for the skill and expertise of Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade and the other specialists and nurses at the University of Chicago medical center."

During her long journey with metastatic breast cancer, she has not always heard such good news.

Shirley Mertz and Funmi Olopade From left: Shirley Mertz and Olufunmilayo Olopade, MD, professor of medicine and human genetics and director of the Cancer Risk Clinic.

Her battle began in 1991 when she learned she had breast cancer. She decided to undergo a double mastectomy that she hoped would end the problem. Twelve years later, she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer with metastases in her liver and spine. Doctors told her she had only a year to live.

Searching for empathy and support, she asked her doctor if he could introduce her to another patient who also had metastatic breast cancer. She was dismayed that little help was available.

Mertz, who lives in Inverness, switched oncologists and started in 2004 with Olopade at the University of Chicago Medicine.

Daily Herald logo Read more about Shirley's story in the Daily Herald newspaper.

Brian Funaki, MD, chief of vascular and interventional radiology, performed a biopsy on Mertz to help determine the type of cancer cells so treatment could be targeted accordingly. An orthopaedic surgeon reviewed the course of her bone metastasis.

An international leader in breast cancer research, Olopade used the results to revise Mertz’s treatment and match it to her tumor type. Mertz was HER2 positive. Her aggressive cancer was treated with Herceptin, which targets HER2, and a chemotherapy drug.

"Dr. Olopade was persistent about finding out the biology of my tumor and then -- practicing both the science and art of medicine -- she selected treatments that reversed the course of my breast cancer," Mertz said.

While she's fighting the disease, Mertz has also decided to champion the cause of metastatic breast cancer awareness because this type of cancer requires different treatment than breast cancer that has not spread. In 2008, she became Midwest coordinator for the national Metastatic Breast Cancer Network and requested that Gov. Rod Blagojevich proclaim October 13 as "Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day" in Illinois.

She points out that metastatic breast cancer patients are living longer now because they have access to more treatments. Her advice to metastatic breast cancer patients: "Allow yourself time to cry, then put on steel armor and learn to take charge of your care. You must be your own advocate."

She added, "A great oncologist will never be offended if you ask for a second opinion."

The medical center has particular expertise in treating metastatic breast cancer thanks to the University of Chicago's Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Breast Cancer, the Ludwig Center for Metastases Research at the University of Chicago, and the University of Chicago Cancer Research Center. The Ludwig Center operates at six distinguished research institutions in the U.S. -- a collaborative that gathers the best minds in the nation to study cancer causes, treatment, and prevention. The Ludwig Center at the University of Chicago medical campus focuses on cancer metastases.

October 2008