When Marcy (Martha) and Bill Korson walked onto the Good Morning America stage on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023, and—together with dozens of family members and friends—hugged their surprised daughter, Kate, it was the latest in a series of “full circle” moments for the family.
Kate was interviewed on the ABC morning news program about her experience as a breast cancer patient at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center (ACC), alongside two of her physicians, oncologist Hayley Knollman, MD, and breast surgeon Lola Fayanju, MD. After the story aired, Good Morning America correspondents Eva Pilgrim and Rob Marciano told Kate that dozens of her friends and family members had secretly traveled to the studio to support her as she shared her story for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
For Kate, her mother, Marcy, is not only an incredible part of her support system, but her inspiration as well.
Family history of cancer care at Abramson Cancer Center
Nearly 20 years ago Marcy, a retired kindergarten teacher, was diagnosed with stage III colorectal cancer, found during a routine colonoscopy. The family lived in New Jersey at the time and Penn Medicine was just a short drive over the bridge. Marcy came to Penn Medicine for a second opinion and chose to enroll in a clinical trial at her care team’s suggestion.
“Before transferring my care to Penn, I was afraid I was going to die without seeing Kate graduate from high school,” Marcy said. “I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders during my first appointment at Penn. The care team was just so positive and compassionate, I felt safe. I knew they would take care of me.”
Her radiation oncologist, James Metz, MD, was directing clinical operations in Radiation Oncology at the time and was leading the development of the Roberts Proton Therapy Center. Now, he’s the chair of the department of Radiation Oncology, overseeing radiation therapy patient care, research, and education across more than a dozen locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“After her diagnosis, Martha was incredibly focused on being there for her daughter and watching her grow. She has always been very dedicated to her family,” Metz said. "What better endorsements can you have [than] a mother doing great after her cancer care and a daughter choosing to trust Penn Medicine because of that experience.”
Triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis at age 34
Marcy’s treatment was successful, and she has remained cancer-free for the last 17 years and counting. She and Bill moved to Naples, Florida in 2008, when Kate headed off to American University in Washington, DC. From there, Kate’s adventurous spirit took her to the West Coast, where she worked in sports operations, before striking out on her own as a sustainability entrepreneur.
Kate was living on a ranch in Colorado—where she spent her free time caring for wild rescue horses and a flock of birds—when she found the lump in her breast in January 2023. Before she even had a biopsy, Kate and her parents had already decided: if it was cancer, she was going to Penn Medicine.
“I knew I’d have access to cutting-edge clinical trials and world-class care at Penn,” Kate said. On her 34th birthday, Kate’s diagnosis was confirmed: stage III triple-negative breast cancer, a particularly aggressive type of cancer that’s challenging to treat because it lacks the three primary targets found in most other breast cancers, hence “triple-negative.”
“It was like the world stopped, and I felt like my soul drained out of my body,” Kate said. “I drank a bottle of wine and gave myself a day to sit with my animals and cry and be sad. The next day, I started planning my move to Philadelphia and never really looked back.”
Choosing a clinical trial for breast cancer treatment
Kate Korson and her care team on Good Morning America
Less than two weeks later, Kate was in her first appointment with Knollman and Fayanju. As part of the ACC’s approach to comprehensive care, oncologists and surgeons in the Rena Rowan Breast Center aim to meet new patients together, to develop a treatment plan as a team.
“I remember when we first walked into the clinic room to meet Kate, she was wearing this Penn sweatshirt and just beaming with energy,” Knollman said. “She told us she was on ‘team Penn’ and she wanted to be sure we were on her team to help her get through this cancer diagnosis.”
“What struck me about Kate was that she immediately told us, ‘study me,’” Fayanju said. “She wanted to participate in research from the very beginning because she understood that’s how we move the field forward to help other patients in the future.”
Kate was eager to join a clinical trial and enrolled in the I-SPY2 clinical trial, led by Amy Clark, MD, site PI for the ACC. The current standard of care for triple-negative breast cancer involves a lengthy five-drug chemotherapy cocktail to shrink the tumor, followed by surgery to remove any remaining tumor tissue. It’s a difficult regimen that’s often accompanied by side effects like nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and more, as the drugs attempt to clear this hard-to-treat cancer type. As part of the clinical trial, Kate was matched to a new, experimental form of chemotherapy that was predicted to work well based on what the biopsy results revealed about her tumor biology.
The clinical trial also included an imaging scan after the fourth dose to determine if the treatment was working, and if so, quickly move to surgery. In Kate’s case, the tumor was nearly obliterated by the study drug and she proceeded to surgery after four infusions, spending about half the amount of time receiving chemotherapy as she would have under standard care.
“I wanted to participate in a clinical trial because I was inspired by my mom,” Kate said. “I saw how brave she was and the success she had on a clinical trial. I felt like I received the best possible care by taking part in a clinical trial, and it feels good to know that I’m helping others by contributing to cancer research.”
Abramson Cancer Center celebrates 50 years
The Korson family’s journey is one example of a long legacy of clinical research at the ACC. Penn Medicine's Cancer Center was formally established in 1973 and was renamed the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania in 2002, in recognition of the extraordinary support of Madlyn and Leonard Abramson and family, who together gave more than $140 million to give Penn the resources, infrastructure, and support to become a national leader in cancer care, clinical trials, and cancer immunotherapy. The ACC has been continuously designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) for the past 50 years and counting.
In the mid-1970s when the ACC was founded, the five-year survival rate for patients with breast cancer was about 75 percent, which has improved to over 90 percent now, according to the latest NCI cancer data. Thanks to progress in cancer prevention, early detection and drug development, survival rates have greatly improved for patients with many other cancer types in recent decades.
“What we're seeing now is new hope for a patient hearing the words, ‘You have cancer,’” said Robert Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, director of the ACC. “Fifty years ago, we had very limited resources to treat those patients. That's different now. As we look ahead to the next 50 years, our team is working together with a singular focus to bring discoveries from the lab to patients as quickly as possible through clinical trials. In the future, we want to produce not only more cures for cancer, but methods to intercept it so that the cancer never develops in the first place.”
The ACC has been at the forefront of numerous advances, contributing to 21 FDA approvals for drugs and techniques to treat cancer since 2017, including the first CAR T cell therapy for cancer, a targeted therapy for breast and ovarian cancer, and the first treatment of its kind for von Hippel-Lindau disease-associated tumors. As ACC experts continue to open new doors in cancer care and research, leading the way in the new fields of immune health and cancer interception, the center is also transforming into a cancer system, where patients can access advanced cancer care and participate in research studies throughout Penn Medicine’s community locations.
More than 62,000 patients sought care at the ACC in the last fiscal year, with more than half a million patients treated over the last 10 years. Now that Kate has completed radiation therapy, she’ll embark on the final phase of her initial treatment, a chemotherapy pill to help keep her cancer-free. As Kate and Marcy look forward to what’s next in life after Kate’s cancer diagnosis, they’re grateful for the compassionate care from Penn Medicine that’s kept their family whole.
“As terrifying as it was to be diagnosed with cancer at age 34, from the moment I walked into Penn, I felt safe,” Kate said. “The kindness and acknowledgement from everyone—the nurses, medical assistants, parking attendants, phlebotomists, janitors, and more—made such a big difference. I had complete faith in my care team. I can’t imagine a better place to go for cancer care.”