I’m a human guinea pig – I’ve had three doses of the breast cancer vaccine

I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in 2018 and after taking the vaccine I'm still in remission.

I’m a human guinea pig – I’ve had three doses of the breast cancer vaccine
Jennifer with her two daughters, both hugging her in a black and white photo
I have an incredible amount of hope for me, my daughters, and all women (Picture: Jennifer Davis)

Receiving a negative biopsy result after finding a lump in your breast should be the end of your cancer journey – but for me it was only the beginning.

Seeking a second opinion saved my life, and in the past five years my journey has taken me in a number of directions, through chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, radiation, and most significantly of all – vaccination. 

Yes, you did read that right. Breast cancer vaccines are possible, and I was the first person to receive one, developed at the Cleveland Clinic just a few hours away from my home in Lisbon, Ohio.

It’s given me a whole new perspective on life – and with more and more positive data coming out of the clinical trial, I have an incredible amount of hope for me, my daughters, and all women. 

I first noticed the growth in February of 2018, and a mammogram alert led to an ultrasound biopsy within a few weeks, which actually came back negative. 

I should have been relieved, but while the absolute worst-case-scenario was no longer at the forefront of my mind, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong – and despite the initial biopsy results the lump in my breast grew, and so did my concern. 

So, after a few months, I sought a second opinion – and I’m so glad I did – it’s important for everyone to be aware that we know our bodies best.

Jennifer holding up a photo of her in a hospital bed, getting tretment from a nurse
I want this vaccine to become routine (Picture: Jennifer Davis)

A new biopsy confirmed the worst – I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, one of the most aggressive forms, on September 26 2018 – just over five years ago – changing my life forever.

I went through every emotion possible, and knew I had a long and difficult road ahead. 

My treatment began almost immediately at the Cleveland Clinic, starting chemotherapy just three weeks later – being given a drug called Adriamycin.

The side effects were devastating, peripheral neuropathy damaged the nerves in my hand so much that it got to the point after just a few rounds of chemo that I couldn’t even button my shirt or open a bottle of water. 

It was there I realised the importance of having the best team around you when battling this disease.

And I’m lucky in that I had two teams backing me up – the medical staff at the Cleveland Clinic, and my family – my husband, three children, my mom, my step dad and my brother. 

I live in quite a small town, and the community really rallied around me. 

Jennifer sitting in front a large wooden frame, with multiple photos hanging inside it - of breasts after surgery and different hair changes
The side effects were devastating (Picture: Jennifer Davis)

But it was my ‘other’ team who took action when I struggled with chemotherapy – my oncologist saw it was doing more harm than good and told me to stop the treatment. 

At first I pushed back against the idea, because in my head I thought it was the only way to get better, but my doctor told me he wanted to help me, not hurt me, and we worked out a new treatment plan. 

At that point, a vaccine wasn’t even in my thoughts, but I think that early experience gave me the faith to trust in what the experts said. 

And so began an arduous journey that saw me undergoing a double mastectomy in March, followed almost immediately by 26 rounds of radiation. 

The whole time, I was just trying to stay positive for my family – I often compare my approach to the episode of Friends where Ross insists to everyone he is ‘fine’ despite obviously not being so – I’m just lucky my family never left my side. 

After radiation and surgery, I had follow-up appointments every three months – but triple negative breast cancer has such a high and dangerous recurrence rate, estimated to be as high as 40%. 

So even though those appointments showed my cancer hadn’t returned, it was always at the back of my mind. Every day was an emotional rollercoaster, being grateful the treatment had been successful, but constantly worried about a recurrence.

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It was in Autumn of 2021 that my nurse practitioner Annie mentioned that human trials for a breast cancer vaccine were about to begin at the clinic.

I didn’t even know that such a thing was possible – but I’ve subsequently found out that after years of work, a vaccine that attacks early cancer cells as they form, was ready for human testing. 

The trial was limited to 24 people who completed treatment and were at high risk of recurrence. 

Honestly, it all happened so fast (I had a narrow window because you can’t be more than three years removed from your first chemo treatment). I knew I didn’t have time to really question the details. 

It was crazy to be the first person in the world to be given a breast cancer vaccine – but honestly I wasn’t scared. 

Frankly, I was tired of living in fear anyway. Every twinge in my body, every ache and pain, made me worried that my cancer was coming back and I wanted to take action not just for me, but for my daughters and women everywhere. 

The vaccine was three doses, and I’m still in remission. I’m so glad I took that leap of faith.

A selfie of Jennifer and her husband - Jennifer is wearing a head scarf
Every day was an emotional rollercoaster (Picture: Jennifer Davis)

The team is now beginning a new phase of the trial, which will see women who are cancer free but at high risk and who have undergone a preventative mastectomy partaking in the trial.

The early data is so encouraging that the team at Cleveland Clinic are hopeful that the approved vaccine can eventually be rolled out to first those like me who have had cancer and are at risk, then those who are at risk but don’t have cancer, and, eventually, all women. 

While this vaccine was designed for just women with the strain of triple negative breast cancer that I had, researchers hope it can be used to help make other types of breast cancer a thing of the past. 

This is a small trial, but the results so far are really positive. I might be the ‘face’ of the vaccine, but there’s a much bigger picture at play. 

I want this vaccine to become routine, I want breast cancer to be spoken of in the past tense, like polio. 

All through my treatment, and even through the follow-up appointments while I was in remission, I felt like a patient. 

After getting the vaccine, I don’t feel like one any longer. 

There’s been over two decades of work behind this vaccine – 20 years of research and pre-human trials by an amazing team of scientists. 

So I’m grateful to them, but even more grateful to the other ‘team’ that had my back. My loved ones. And if being the first person in the world to get a breast cancer vaccine gives me more time with them, it will all have been worth it. 

I may have been the first – but I won’t be the last. Breast cancer vaccines are a reality to me now, and I hope for generations more women to come.

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