March 8, 2016

New Tradition Bonds Friends Fighting Breast Cancer

March 8, 2016 | During one of her many trips to the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Tammy Alexander spotted an old friend browsing in the gift shop.

“Stacy Sells and I were classmates at Hendrix College, but we hadn’t seen each other in quite a while,” she said. Having seen a UAMS advertisement featuring Sells, Alexander immediately knew they shared a common bond.

Tammy Alexander (left) and fellow Hendrix College alumna Stacy Sells are both breast cancer survivors and share the pink boxing glove tradition.

“I had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, and Stacy is a survivor. We even have the same doctors,” she said.

It wasn’t long after their chance meeting that Alexander received a surprise delivery: a pair of pink boxing gloves signed by Sells and three other Hendrix graduates. Next to each name, the classmates listed their graduation year and the date they were diagnosed with breast cancer.

“The gloves are signed and passed along whenever we hear of another classmate who has been diagnosed. They symbolize our fighting spirit and the camaraderie of the Hendrix community,” Alexander said.

The tradition began when Sells received the boxing gloves from a friend after her 2010 diagnosis with inflammatory breast cancer.  After that friend was diagnosed six months later, Sells returned the gloves to her and started their journey among the Hendrix alumnae.

“I hope there’s no one for me to give them to anytime soon,” Alexander said as she completed her final round of eight chemotherapy treatments. Because the treatment was successful in shrinking her tumor to the size of a pea, she has opted to undergo a lumpectomy, rather than a mastectomy, followed by radiation therapy.

“I cannot express how pleased we are with the care we’ve received at UAMS. I start each chemo day with a little bit of dread, but when I leave I feel so blessed and filled with encouragement. Each person on the infusion clinic staff and in the Medical Oncology Clinic is a blessing in their own unique way,” Alexander said.

In conjunction with her treatment, Alexander chose to participate in a clinical trial studying the effectiveness of a vaccine to prevent breast cancer recurrence. Developed at UAMS by Thomas Kieber-Emmons, Ph.D., the vaccine — which is a first of its type tested in humans — is being used in conjunction with chemotherapy in women with early stage disease to see if it helps trigger tumor shrinkage prior to surgery. Kieber-Emmons is a professor of pathology in the UAMS College of Medicine.

“The clinical trial included six shots early in my treatment. They are now monitoring my blood work and will continue to do that for about a year. I’m thrilled to be part of something that could improve treatment for other women in the future,” she said.

The trial is being conducted with eligible patients at UAMS and Highlands Oncology Group in northwest Arkansas. Kieber-Emmons’ collaborator on the study, Laura Hutchins, M.D., is professor in the Division of Hematology/Oncology in the UAMS College of Medicine and medical director of the Cancer Service Line.