HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — One woman with stage 3 breast cancer didn’t think she had long to live until she tried immunotherapy.


What You Need To Know

Stephanie McConnell was diagnosed with stage 3C triple negative breast cancer in 2012

After chemotherapy the breast cancer metastasized into her brain, and doctors didn’t think she had long to live

An immunotherapy known as atezolizumab, saved her life and cleared her cancer

Atezolizumab is now FDA-approved for certain types of cancer


Stephanie McConnell says she has always shared a special bond with her 12-year-old son. They share the same birthday and were always really close. She tries to cherish every moment and every activity with him because there was a time she thought he might lose his mother.

In 2012 McConnell was diagnosed with stage 3C triple negative breast cancer. The American Cancer Society says it’s considered an aggressive cancer because it grows quickly.

“I found out it is one of the most deadliest kinds of breast cancer,” McConnell said. “There are no targeted treatments for it, which makes it so dangerous.”

Doctors tried chemotherapy and radiation, but instead of defeating the cancer, it metastasized into her brain. Doctors told her she might have less than a year to live.

“I thought, 'oh my gosh, this is really scary and this is really really bad,'” McConnell said.

She couldn’t imagine her son growing up without her. So she kept searching for answers, and in 2015 she found a clinical trial happening at the Carolina Biooncology Institute in Huntersville.

She met with the institute founder, Dr. John Powderly, who explained their facility had a new immunothreapy treatment called atezolizumab that could help.

“Modern immunotherapy drugs generally don’t kill the cancer,” Powderly said. “Instead, the drug, like what Stephanie is on, releases the brakes so the immune system can identify the cancer, and then it’s the patients' own immune system that does the killing.”

Powderly says the immune system is trained to spot dangerous cells and kill them. But some cancer cells have figured out ways to hide from our immune system. McConnell’s treatment is designed to re-activate the immune system to spot those dangerous cancer cells and attack them. 

“In three years I had no signs of cancer,” McConnell said.

Although the treatment worked, McConnell still goes back to receive additional treatment every six weeks.

“We found that if we stop immunotherapy completely, many patients will relapse,” Powderly said.

McConnell has side effects from the continuous treatment.

“Inflammation is the biggest one,” McConnell said. “Sometimes your hands feel like they are in a socket, and it’s hard to pinpoint what the pain is.”

But it’s a small price to pay for the end result, which is allowing her to be there for her son. She can now watch him grow up and not miss out on a single moment.

“I feel like I won the lottery,” McConnell said.

The treatment that McConnell is on is now approved by the FDA. The Carolina Biooncology Institute also has several other drugs for different types of cancers in clinical trials. To find a clinical trial near you visit the federal clinical trials website.