'Living my life like I don’t have cancer': Despite a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, Maria Pearson continues her barrel racing passion

Maria Pearson riding her horse, Spur.
Maria Pearson riding her horse, Spur, this year. Spur was born when Pearson was diagnosed with breast cancer. Photo compliments of Bill Lawless Photography.

In the spring of 2012, Maria Pearson was grooming one of her horses when he tossed his head to dispel flies and knocked Pearson in the chest, causing her left breast to swell up. A few months later, she fell off that same horse, broke her hand and tore her rotator cuff. It was a rough few months, to say the least.

One doctor recommended she get a mammogram, but the mammography technician advised her to wait until the swelling receded to get more accurate imaging. Pearson waited and waited, but by December the swelling still hadn’t decreased and she had developed red lesions on her breast. The pain began around Christmas that year. A month later, she developed a cough, which led to an X-ray that resulted in a referral to an oncologist in Wenatchee, not far from her home in Palisades, where she lives on a cattle ranch.

By the time she was diagnosed with triple positive, stage 4 breast cancer that had spread to her bones and liver, Pearson, 47, couldn’t walk across the room. A friend of a friend helped her book an appointment at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. “After I left the clinic, for the first time in nine months, I had hope. All these people were rooting for me, from the receptionist standing up and patting me on the back and saying, ‘We’re so excited for you, you’re going to do great,’ to the PA stopping the elevator door before going down and saying, ‘We’re going to take care of you.’”

Pearson started treatment in April 2013 and within 45 days, her tumor markers plummeted as she participated in a clinical trial delivering two chemotherapy drugs, Perjeta and Herceptin, simultaneously. Overjoyed, Pearson carried on with her life.

But in 2015, a scan showed some tumor growth. Pearson’s doctor, Dr. Jennifer Specht, changed course, taking Pearson off chemotherapy and trying a hormone blocker, which worked for a while. Then in 2019, Dr. Specht advised radiation therapy. “That cleared things up,” says Pearson. “I was feeling amazing, like I got my life back.”

Pearson has traveled to SCCA at least every three weeks for care over the last eight years. Earlier this year, Pearson was taken aback when another scan showed that the cancer had moved to her right breast. "It really deflated me because I was feeling so good spiritually, mentally and physically,” she says.

While the news was discouraging, Pearson felt confident that Dr. Specht would develop the right plan for her. Right from the start, Pearson has been eager to participate in research, opting to take part in multiple clinical trials designed to improve how breast cancer is treated.

“That speaks volumes,” says Dr. Specht. “Trials are the defining feature of what we do best here.” Most recently, Pearson was part of a high-profile trial that led to FDA approval for a new targeted therapy (tucatinib) for HER2-positive breast cancer.

SCCA offers all patients the opportunity to participate in clinical trials, if their diagnosis makes them eligible. For metastatic breast cancer patients, trial eligibility depends upon disease status and type of cancer. “Our mission at SCCA is to be involved in developing the next best treatments for cancer,” says Dr. Specht. “When talking to patients, we always present standard of care and the latest research studies as options and choices.

Having a doctor such as Dr. Specht who is in tune with her preferences has helped Pearson move forward. Unlike many patients, Pearson is not interested in understanding the finer points of her treatment or prognosis.

“I don’t want to know every little gory detail about my scans,” she says. “I do better not knowing. Dr. Specht understands me and works with me to tailor my treatments.”

Dr. Specht is used to patients wanting to know everything and then some, so caring for Pearson has required somewhat of a learning curve. Rather than try to persuade Pearson to become more invested in the details of her treatment, Dr. Specht takes care to provide only high-level explanations. She appreciates that Pearson trusts her to make the right treatment decisions. “It speaks to Maria’s willingness to partner with us,” says Dr. Specht. “She has a level of trust for her team that for us as clinicians is awe-inspiring.”

Since January, Pearson has been on oral chemotherapy, which is working well. “I have been living my life like I don’t have cancer,” she says. “I don’t look like I have cancer, and I don’t feel like I have cancer.”

“SCCA has given me my life back,” she says. “They are constantly trying new treatments. They told me they have patients with metastatic breast cancer that they’ve been treating for 20 years who are doing amazing. And they say, ‘Maria, you’re one of them.’” 

In the years since her diagnosis, Pearson has continued to barrel race, a sport she has competed in since she was 23. Barrel racing is a speed event on horseback in which a rider races around three barrels set up in a cloverleaf pattern in the middle of an arena.

When Pearson was diagnosed, one of her horses, Spur, was born. “There were times as he was growing up that I wasn’t sure I’d be here to ride him,” she says. “I have raised him, trained him to run barrels, and today I am able to compete on him. My team at SCCA is very supportive and ask about my barrel racing all the time. When your doctor knows your horses’ names, that’s pretty cool!”

To explore clinical trials for breast cancer currently available at SCCA, click here.

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