Long-term cancer survivor beats odds, prompts study

April 3, 2018 By Susan Lampert Smith

You’ve heard of the face that launched a thousand ships?

Margaret “Peg” Geisler, 82, is the case that launched an international search for “extreme survivors” of metastatic breast cancer.

Photo: Peg Geisler

“Each time I was diagnosed, I was very aware that my statistical chances of long-term survival decreased … but I kept waking up alive,” Peg Geisler says.

Geisler, a retired UW–Madison director of outreach development, has lived with breast cancer for 40 years and with metastatic cancer (meaning it spread to her bones) for 36 years.

Her story inspired UW Carbone Cancer Center oncologist Mark Burkard, who now is hunting the world for other survivors like her.

“I still remember the first time I met her,” says Burkard, who was filling in while Geisler’s current oncologist, Amye Tevaarwerk, was on maternity leave. “They never teach you about patients like Peg in medical school. They teach that when cancer becomes metastatic, the patient will die.”

After her initial diagnosis in 1978, Peg Geisler’s cancer returned and spread to her bones in 1982. A doctor told her she had a 15 percent chance of living another five years.

Instead, Geisler has long outlived her original oncologist, pioneering breast-cancer researcher Paul P. Carbone, for whom the center is named. She’s welcomed grandchildren into the world and appreciated her supportive family and the time she has been given, saying, “The grass is greener; the sky is bluer; and faces of the people you love are dearer.”

Still, it hasn’t been easy. After her initial diagnosis in 1978, the cancer returned and spread to her bones in 1982; a young doctor told her she had a 15 percent chance of living another five years. She’s had it come back in 2003, 2008 and 2013.

Photo: Mark Burkard

“They never teach you about patients like Peg in medical school,” says oncologist Mark Burkard.

“Each time I was diagnosed, I was very aware that my statistical chances of long-term survival decreased … but I kept waking up alive,” Geisler says. She’s had a mastectomy, high-dose radiation, chemotherapy, the drug Tamoxifen when it was brand new, and later aromatase inhibitors that help prevent recurrence.

Still, many women have these same treatments and don’t survive. Burkard wondered if there was something different about Geisler and other long-term survivors.

He’s looking for 2,000 long-term metastatic breast-cancer survivors to fill out an online survey on their treatments and on lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and social support. Another 50 of the longest survivors will have their tissues and blood analyzed to look for genes and immune-system differences that may have helped.

The idea is to find ways to help the next generation of breast-cancer survivors.

Geisler says she is happy to help, but she already knows one secret to survival: “Research has shown that cantankerous patients live longer, so I resolved to be a cantankerous patient.”