In January 2015, Peterson, 54, was diagnosed with stage 1 triple-negative breast cancer, a type that is more likely to return within five years and has fewer targeted treatment options. Since her tumor was small and had not yet spread, her doctors advised chemotherapy and a voluntary double mastectomy to decrease the chance of recurrence to 4 percent. Posttreatment she resumed her normal activities. Then, in April 2017, cancer was detected once again—tumors were found in her lungs, ribs, spine, and pelvis.
This time around Peterson didn’t wait for the doctors to call the shots. She read everything she could get her hands on about the latest studies on triple-negative breast cancer. “I spent 8 to 12 hours a day just scouring the Internet, going over white papers, journals and research,” the Harlemite recalls.
Peterson cut out the middleman by contacting researchers directly. Through her extensive research efforts, she discovered that genomic testing—which looks at all of a person’s genomic mutations rather than a specific one or set—could pinpoint what was driving her cancer and that immunotherapy could help boost the disease-fighting lymphocytes already in her system. She took this information to her oncologist, who shut her down until Peterson revealed that she had met with top researchers in the field. “When my doctor found out who I was talking to, all of a sudden my words became valid,” she says. Peterson broke up with that doubting oncologist and found one who supported her. Her new physician helped her secure a spot in a clinical trial for immunotherapy. The result? Her tumors shrunk by 72 percent.
Peterson acknowledges that some might consider her a medical miracle, but she believes her secret was charting her own path to healing. “I’m just a simple woman,” she says. “I did not have a special hookup, and I’m self-taught. If I can do it, you can, too. There are other Karens out there. I believe they just don’t know it.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of ESSENCE Magazine, on newsstands now.