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The fight continues: Handler Hope Foundation looks to change screening practices for cancer metastases

People by: Joanne Kountourakis, April 29, 2023

Fundraising efforts, including a Battle of the Bands at Great South Bay Brewery (winning band Candy Riot is pictured here), continue to help push the Lauren Handler Research Fund forward in its effort to monitor and detect early brain metastatic progression of certain breast cancers. Photo courtesy Darren Handler.

It’s been a little over one year since the Handler Hope Foundation was created and already the local nonprofit is looking to blaze trails with a very specific type of cancer research that would make it easier for women to follow up their cancer (and cancer-free) diagnoses with routine monitoring.

The foundation, established in the early months of 2022, has been on a mission to change the course of cancer since its inception; in August 2022, the Handler Hope Foundation made an initial contribution of $25,000 to Huntington Hospital, officially establishing the Lauren Handler Research Fund, an effort made in collaboration with Northwell Health to obtain and publish research data that would alter current screening practices for brain metastases among patients with HER2-positive and triple negative breast cancers.

Handler Hope is currently the only organization funding the research with Northwell Health; leaders at the nonprofit have committed to raising another $75,000 this year.

“It’s only going to go as far as we can fund it,” said Northport Village resident Darren Handler. “Hopefully when they get a little bit of traction with what we can fund, it will attract other funders and move it along a little faster.”

Last month, the foundation raised over $4,500 via a Battle of the Bands event at Great South Bay Brewery. Four local bands provided their time and talent to the effort, an extension of the Bay Shore brewery’s commitment to local charities. Regalo Trattoria and Pizza Bar, of Northport, presented $500 to the winning band, Candy Riot. The musicians donated the money right back to the Handler Hope Foundation. It’s these types of events and acts of charity Darren hopes will move the foundation’s mission forward and help women detect the spread of cancer before it's too late.

Both HER2-positive and triple negative breast cancers have a high propensity for metastasis, specifically into the brain, Darren explained. His wife, Lauren Handler, was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer in May of 2020. After a double mastectomy, plus rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy, Lauren received a cancer-free designation, but never stopped asking for brain scans – she knew her cancer was high risk.

Medical and insurance guidelines, however, don’t support further monitoring once a patient with either HER2-positive or triple negative breast cancer is treated, and a person is labeled “cancer-free.” But case studies show the cancer can metastasize to the brain, (with HER2-positive cases showing a significantly increased risk of brain metastasis) many times before any symptoms are present – one in three patients identified as having brain metastasis do not have any readily identifiable symptoms.

In November 2021, Lauren went to the emergency room with a strong and persistent headache; her cancer had indeed spread to her brain. She passed away six months later at the age of 38.

“What we are trying to prove is that because of the high-risk nature of these two types of cancer, there should be routine scans or routine monitoring of the brain for these women,” Darren said. “And if we do that, we’ll catch these metastases earlier and ideally be able to treat them.”

While he has learned during this process that it may take years to change the guidelines, Darren is holding onto the hope that change will happen. The foundation is working closely with Dr. Robert Kerr, Chief of Neurosurgery at Huntington Hospital with Northwell Health, and Dr. Heather Zinkin, Chief of Radiation Medicine at Huntington Hospital. Both Kerr and Zinkin are advocating for additional and annual imaging scans, and surveillance of the brain and spinal axis to detect early brain metastatic progression. The doctors are also studying the use of innovative, new technologies in the area of liquid biopsies, a more powerful, less costly and less invasive way to determine disease progression.

Darren credits these doctors, their teams and staff in the cancer center at Huntington Hospital, also known as 1North, for the positive impact they had during Lauren’s care, and now, as they continue the fight in real time against the odds, to change the guidelines that often hold women with breast cancer back, and save lives.

“There are a lot of people focused on a cure and a cure would be great, but there is so much low hanging fruit that we could grab between now and a cure,” Darren said.

The foundation is currently working on getting charity status in other states, and looks forward to hosting more local fundraising events, including its annual walk-a-thon and “Night Out with 1North” this year. To learn more about the Handler Hope Foundation and its upcoming events, or to make a donation, visit www.handlerhopefoundation.com. Details on the Lauren Handler Research Fund can be found here.