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Diane Altenburg doesn’t mind a good challenge. An army wife for 28 years and mother to five children, she and her family moved 17 times, across states and continents as military roles changed. But even with all the travel, Altenburg never felt put out. She regarded it all as part of her military life and part of service.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time 15 years ago, she looked at it as an opportunity for service once again. Altenburg beat the cancer into remission and, afterwards, worked with the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and Walter Reed Army Medical Center to create a breast cancer wing. She was one of a handful of patient advocates who worked on the project. The completed wing offered breast cancer patients a place to seek counseling and dietary services and even get their hair and make-up done.
Little did Altenburg know then, she would one day return again as a patient.
Four years after her first diagnosis, Altenburg was back in the wing she helped create. She developed a second breast cancer, and this time it was invasive and spread to her lymph glands.
While a second cancer diagnosis may be debilitating to some, Altenburg took it in stride, saying she doubted cancer ever really went away and that she never believed in the phrase “cancer-free.” She resumed her fight and, once again, beat the cancer into remission.
It was at this time that Altenburg’s doctor asked if she would be interested in participating in a clinical trial for an experimental vaccine called NeuVax, or nelipepimut-S. The vaccine – part of a new class of cancer fighting drugs called immunotherapies – triggers the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells not destroyed by radiation or chemotherapy as well as target any new, growing cancer cells.
Altenburg, who had volunteered for numerous medical trials in the past, agreed to take part. “I don’t wear pink, I don’t do the walks. This is my way of giving back,” she said, adding that she wanted to do something to help prevent her children and grandchildren from facing breast cancer one day.
She was one of 200 women to participate in the trial and made the frequent drive to Walter Reed from her home in Springfield, Virginia. Upon arriving, she received a dose of the vaccine in her thigh and had her vitals monitored for an hour. She went home and returned a couple days later so researchers could monitor how the vaccine was affecting her immune system. She would then receive booster shots every six months for almost five years.
Before the trial started, Altenburg had questions about the procedure. She wanted to know if there were any side effects and how the vaccine would affect her life, but she found the effects to be negligible. “The drive up (to Walter Reed) was the hardest part,” she says.
The trial concluded for her six years ago, and Altenburg’s cancer still has not returned. Instead of worrying about battling a disease, she is free to enjoy her life, including spending time with her husband, retired Major General John D. Altenburg, Jr. She’s also busy keeping up with their five children who are spread across the country. And, in what free time remains, Altenburg gives tours at Gunston Hall. “I always say if you need something done, ask a busy person. They’re most likely to do it,” she says.
The future development of anti-cancer medications has already benefited from a certain busy woman who didn’t mind a good challenge.
The NeuVax Phase 3 PRESENT study is ongoing and actively enrolling breast cancer patients. To qualify, you must be cancer free and have completed your chemotherapy and radiation treatments. You can learn more about this groundbreaking research and the eligibility requirements needed to participate in the clinical trial by visiting neuvax.com.