In my mind, they were only for people who were willing to try absolutely anything to stay alive — even if it meant enduring pain and discomfort.
It turns out that all of my assumptions were wrong. So, today, I know better.
I’ve been on an immunotherapy clinical trial now for about two years. It’s led by Dr. Maria Cabanillas. And because of her — and that clinical trial — all of my remaining cancer has either disappeared, shrunk or stabilized.
My thyroid cancer diagnosis
I learned I had thyroid cancer in January 2017, after seeing my regular doctor about swelling in my neck. An ultrasound showed I had an infected wisdom tooth. I got that treated, but the lump didn’t go away. When my doctor ordered a biopsy, I told him, “Look: if it’s cancer, I’m going to MD Anderson.”
Because where I live in Lake Charles, Louisiana, doctors might see one case of thyroid cancer a year. MD Anderson doctors see dozens every week. They specialize in cancer and see more of even the rarest types regularly.
Biopsy reveals both papillary and anaplastic thyroid cancer
I had surgery on March 6, 2017. Thirteen of the 44 lymph nodes Dr. Graham removed turned out to be cancerous. I kind of expected that, so it wasn’t a surprise. What was surprising was the pathology report on the tumor itself. The biopsy showed only 90% of it was papillary thyroid cancer. The other 10% was anaplastic thyroid cancer.
When I heard the revised diagnosis, I started panicking a little bit. Papillary thyroid cancer tends to be pretty slow-growing, but anaplastic thyroid cancer is very aggressive. I was afraid I was going to die.
Fortunately, Dr. Graham wasn’t panicking at all. He told me, “Don’t worry. You still have options. There are things we can do. We’ve got this.” I found great comfort in that. His confidence helped me let go of my fear.
They recommended six weeks of radiation therapy to zap any stray cancer cells still lingering in my neck and thyroid area. I’d also receive two chemotherapy drugs (carboplatin and paclitaxel) during that period to make the radiation more effective.
My team of experts
The best part of MD Anderson is knowing that I don’t have just one expert, but an entire team of experts working on my case. Everybody gets together to develop your treatment plan, which I find pretty impressive.
Even when Dr. Gunn was making his recommendations for radiation therapy, all of the other doctors signed off on it, too. I live in a small town, where you just don’t have that level of expertise.
What prompted me to join a clinical trial
I started my treatments in April 2017 and finished them the following month. There was no evidence of cancer left in my neck. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of my lungs and abdomen. Scans of those areas showed a few spots where the cancer had spread. My doctors came together again to discuss next steps.
This time, they recommended a clinical trial led by Dr. Cabanillas. It combines an immunotherapy drug called atezolizumab with a monoclonal antibody called bevacizumab and several types of chemotherapy. I get an IV infusion every two weeks, and I take a targeted therapy drug called cobemitinib in pill form, too. I take three pills a day (all at once) for three weeks, then take a week off.
So far, so good on the clinical trial
So far, I’ve been doing pretty well. All of my cancerous spots have either shrunk, disappeared or remained the same size. And while radiation made swallowing really difficult for a while, I didn’t need a feeding tube or a tracheotomy to breathe. I did have a little nausea and vomiting, though, and some constipation due to pain medicine. But my worst side effect has been fatigue. So, I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet.
I think a lot of people obsess over the possible downside of clinical trials. They worry about how medication might affect them, and the discomfort they might have to endure. But MD Anderson researchers are very good about making sure there isn’t a downside. They have systems in place for every possible reaction, and contingency plans for every scenario. You just can’t get that anywhere else.