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Personal Story: A “flu shot” against breast cancer? Not so fast

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At a glance Clinical trials                       
Behind the headlines      Guidelines            
Vaccines and prevention Questions to ask your doctor   
What does this mean for me? Resources


This article is about: 

the story of one patient in an early-phase breast cancer vaccine trial.

The headlines

Many media outlets picked up a story about a woman with ( 0) who participated in a clinical trial of a breast cancer vaccine.  Headlines included:

  • “Florida Woman Recovers from Breast Cancer with Trial Vaccine: ‘I Feel Like I Walked on the Moon’”
  • “Trial Vaccine Wipes Out Breast Cancer in Florida Patient”
  • “Has Florida clinic developed the cure for cancer?”
  • “Mayo Breast Cancer Vaccine Could Be Available in Less Than a Decade”
  • “Cancer Vaccine Showing Promise in Early Trials”

Behind the headlines 

Media outlets covered the story of Lee Mercker, who was recently diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ ().  is a noninvasive form of breast cancer. This means the cancer cells formed in the milk duct but haven't spread beyond to invade other parts of the breast. Although is not life-threatening, it can turn into invasive breast cancer if it is not treated.

In most cases, is treated with breast-conserving surgery (BCS). A surgeon removes the tumor and a small amount of surrounding normal tissue. BCS is usually followed by radiation therapy. For some women, including Mercker, mastectomy is a better option for treating .

Walking on the moon: Lee Mercker’s story

Mercker said she went to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL to start treatment for .  However, her doctor asked if she’d like to try something else first: an experimental vaccine intended to fight off breast cancer and prevent future breast cancer.

Mercker said that she jumped at the chance, and she was the first patient enrolled in the clinical trial. Over 12 weeks, she received shots of a vaccine designed to train her own immune system to find and attack her precancerous cells, similar to the way flu vaccine works.

Mastectomy or with radiation are standard-of-care treatments for . It is important to note that Mercker received the vaccine then had a double mastectomy. Even without the vaccine, mastectomy that removed Mercker’s breast tissue would have eliminated her . However, because she has a mastectomy, researchers were able to carefully examine her breast tissue to see if the vaccine affected her breast cancer cells.

Development of medications and vaccines for cancer prevention

Several studies are looking at medications and vaccines in an effort to prevent or lower the risk for cancer. Similar to the study in which Ms. Mercker participated, it is common for these clinical trials to begin enrolling people who have very early stages of cancer and plan to undergo surgery. The medication or vaccine is given before surgery; afterward, a pathologist looks closely at the removed tissue to see how the drug affected the cancerous cells.

According to, the current Mayo study is small, enrolling just 43 women who will be followed for a couple of years to observe the vaccine’s safety and side effects. Much larger and longer-term studies will be needed in order to show whether the vaccine ultimately prevents from becoming invasive breast cancer. Because the research is still early and the effectiveness of the vaccine is still unproven, women who participate will also receive standard-of-care treatment for .

What does the future hold?

There are several different types of breast cancer. The vaccine in this study was created to prevent breast cancers that make too much of the Her/neu protein (or for short), which plays a large role in the development of many breast cancers. If successful, this vaccine may help prevent many—but not all—breast cancers. Currently, clinical trials are testing several approaches to preventing breast cancer or recurrence.

Because the immune system helps people to fight infection and cancer, researchers are very interested in ways to harness it to treat or prevent cancer. New drugs are approved to treat several types of cancer, including breast cancer. Still, although the immune system is a natural part of our body’s defense against disease, like any other treatment, vaccines and immunotherapies must be thoroughly tested to prove they are safe and effective before they become standard of care.

What does this mean for me?

While several headlines suggested that Mercker was “cured” by the vaccine, she did not receive it as a breast cancer treatment. While this research is promising, it is far too early to assume or to state that this is an effective way to prevent or treat breast cancer. It is misleading and dangerous for the media to promote this as a cure. Women diagnosed with should follow the recommendations of their health care team. Participating in a research study such as this one is the best way to get access to experimental agents, advance science and assure that you receive quality care.

posted 10/25/19

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New cancer vaccine trial helped kill cancer cells in Mayo patient (2019, October 10). 


FORCE receives funding from industry sponsors, including companies that manufacture cancer drugs, tests and devices. All XRAYS articles are written independently of any sponsor and are reviewed by members of our Scientific Advisory Board prior to publication to assure scientific integrity.

This article is relevant for:

Women diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS)

This article is also relevant for:

people with breast cancer

people with ER/PR + cancer

people with Her2-positive cancer

people newly diagnosed with cancer

Be part of XRAY:

Expert Guidelines
Expert Guidelines

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines include the following options for treatment of DCIS:

  • Breast-conserving therapy ( followed by radiation therapy) without lymph node surgery.
  • Total mastectomy with or without lymph node surgery.
  • Breast-conserving surgery without lymph node surgery followed by accelerated partial breast irradiation.
  • Breast-conserving surgery without lymph node surgery (and without radiation therapy).   

Following surgery, the NCCN recommends that patients:

  • Consider endocrine therapy for 5 years for people with ER-positive who:
    • received breast conservation and radiation therapy.
    • were treated with surgical excision only. 
  • Receive counseling regarding risk reduction.

Updated: 03/12/2022

Questions To Ask Your Doctor
Questions To Ask Your Doctor

  • What are the best options for treating my given my age and/or family background?
  • Will my family history of cancer affect my treatment options for ?
  • What other tests can be used to help decide how to treat my ?
  • I was diagnosed with before age 50, ­should I consider genetic counseling or genetic testing?
  • What are my options for reducing my risk of a recurrence?
  • Do I qualify for any clinical trials?

Peer Support
Peer Support

The following organizations offer peer support services for people with, or at high risk for breast cancer:

Updated: 05/07/2024

Who covered this study?


Woman cancer-free in 7 months after receiving trial vaccine This article rates 3.0 out of 5 stars

New York Post

New cancer vaccine helped kill cancer cells in breast cancer patient This article rates 3.0 out of 5 stars


How a trial vaccine helped wipe out a woman’s breast cancer in 7 months This article rates 3.0 out of 5 stars

The Washington Times

Cancer vaccine showing promise in early trials This article rates 2.5 out of 5 stars

First Coast ABC News

New cancer vaccine trial helped kill cancer cells in Mayo patient This article rates 2.0 out of 5 stars

How we rated the media

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