Battling Stage 4 Breast Cancer for 4 Years: ‘I Have Cancer, But Cancer Does Not Have Me’

UConn Health's Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center, a world leader in cancer vaccines, is researching innovative vaccines against aggressive breast cancer and teaming with the V Foundation to raise more research funding for this game-changing research

UConn Health's Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center, a world leader in cancer vaccines, is researching innovative vaccines against aggressive breast cancer and teaming with the V Foundation to raise more research funding for this game-changing research ()

Susan Tannenbaum MD meets with her patient Grace Rosol in the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at UConn Health on September 8, 2022 (Tina Encarnacion/UConn Health photo)

Grace Rosol, 58, of Windsor, is not just a cancer fighter, she’s a crusader for advancing cancer research.

Rosol has armed herself with the very best doctors in the battle for her life against metastatic Stage 4 breast cancer, while also volunteering to participate in clinical trials at the University of Connecticut to advance scientific research and find a cure.

In 2018, she was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma Her2 positive, estrogen receptor negative breast cancer. Rosol’s prognosis was to live just another 2-3 years.

But she’s beating the odds.  It’s now been four years since her diagnosis, thanks to the advanced, cutting-edge care of Connecticut’s only public academic medical center, UConn Health, where she’s a patient at the Carole & Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“I have cancer, but cancer does not have me!” exclaims Rosol. “If you get diagnosed with breast cancer you need to surround yourself with the best. Believe in your doctor and the science. Remember, your mental strength and faith is a big weapon against cancer.”

Grace’s story: ‘That was the big awakening’
Rosol is a longtime patient of the Department of OB/GYN at UConn Health cared for by Dr. Ramzi Alkass.

“Labor Day Weekend in September 2018 I was gardening and thought I pulled a muscle,” recalls Rosol. “But then I found a lump in my left armpit. I called my OB/GYN Dr. Alkass and he urged me to get it checked further right away.”

Rosol quickly had a breast biopsy along with an MRI imaging test. But the results weren’t good.

“The biopsy confirmed I had breast cancer, the type was Her2 positive, hormone receptor negative breast cancer, and the MRI showed spots on my liver meaning it had spread. I was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer,” says Rosol.

Invasive Ductal Carcinoma is a breast cancer that begins to grow in the breast’s milk duct and can spread quickly through the body’s nearby lymph nodes or bloodstream to travel to other tissues. Her2 positive, hormone receptor negative breast cancer is aggressive. It’s fueled by a growth-promoting protein known as human epithelial growth factor receptor 2 (Her2). Therapy is directed at this receptor. Anti-estrogen pills are of no value in treating this cancer.

Rosol’s Stage 4 cancer diagnosis didn’t really hit her until she learned she wasn’t a candidate for surgery to remove her cancer.

“That was the big awakening,” says Rosol. “Since I had Stage 4 breast cancer, I learned that you don’t operate on Stage 4 – and that there is no cure.”

Her oncologist/hematologist is UConn Health’s Dr. Susan Tannenbaum. She rapidly started Rosol on Taxane chemotherapy in conjunction with two immunotherapies used in combination; trastuzumab and pertuzumab.

While Tannenbaum didn’t have all the answers for Rosol, with a projected prognosis of 2-3 years to live, she reassured her one important thing – to have hope.

“I don’t know how long you have to live, everyone is different,” Tannenbaum said at the time. “I don’t know anyone’s expiration date, including yours.”

But that was back in September 2018.

“It’s been four years!” Rosol exclaims. “I have had very good quality of life. Sometimes some chemotherapy fatigue, but I manage.”

Rosol is still a hairdresser working 3-4 long days a week.

“I’m a hairdresser – I hear what a lot of people go through with cancer. A lot of people have cancer. I am very fortunate and stay active.”

But it’s not all work. Gardening is her passion, along with motherhood.

“Spring to Fall outside is where you will find me,” she says. “I love the outdoors. Gardening is so rewarding. It’s where I can sometimes find control away from my cancer. You plant flowers and see them grow. The more you care for them, the more they grow, and bloom.”

After raising her own children, Rosol became an adoptive mother to a daughter when she was just three years old. Rosol has also loved watching her daughter, who is now 15, grow up.

Crusader for cancer research
“Dr. Tannenbaum is the best doctor I have ever come across,” says Rosol. “Patients are at the heart of what she does.”

This is why Rosol chose to volunteer to participate in an innovative clinical trial of Dr. Tannenbaum.

“I was in Dr. Tannenbaum’s clinical trial studying our blood. She is a hematologist. She asked me and I said yes.”

Rosol adds: “Cancer research is the only way we are going to put a stop to this is to learn more. I will do anything to help take research further steps. The more we know the better we are.”

Tumor cells from patients with both early and late stage cancers are known to circulate in the bloodstream. However, current technology falls short in characterizing and quantifying the small numbers of circulating tumor cells (CTCs). But a powerful microscope technology is now detecting and analyzing these hard-to-find CTCs from the blood samples of breast cancer patients like Rosol.

The ongoing CLINBREAC clinical trial study of the novel RareScope™ at the Carole & Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center is identifying CTCs using high-powered 3D optical tomography imaging developed by the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP) biotech startup company QCDx LLC (Quantitative Cell Diagnostix). The testing of breast cancer patients’ blood includes those with both early and late-stage disease as well as healthy volunteers. The technology also stains breast cancer cell receptors typically found via tissue biopsies and other cancer biomarkers.

“The strength of this new technology is its ability to see and quantify all cancer cells circulating in each patient’s body at different time points of treatment revealing their response over time,” says CLINBREAC clinical trial Principal Investigator Tannenbaum, chief of Hematology-Oncology at UConn Health. “This promising technology has the potential to personalize cancer therapies with a simple blood draw rather than biopsies. Our hope is that this will impact patient outcomes.”

And so does Rosol.

After recently experiencing a progression of her metastatic breast cancer, Rosol’s cancer team doctors are moving her to the second line of defense latest treatments available. She just started the brand new immunotherapy ENHERTU in early November.

Tannenbaum, along with Dr. Pramod Srivastava at the Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center of UConn Health, are currently researching cancer vaccines against breast cancer and other cancers to help patients like Rosol. Learn more and find out how to support this innovative research. 100% of donations go straight to game-changing cancer research by UConn and the V Foundation.

Rosol also wants everyone to know about UConn Health’s care.

“Every single person at UConn Health and its Neag Cancer Center, from the front-desk to the infusion room, are wonderful. They really are.”