March 31, 2022
Three-time cancer survivor: Why I joined a clinical trial
BY Betty Ashford
I’ve been treated for three different types of cancer at MD Anderson. The first one was a rare skull base tumor called mucoepidermoid carcinoma. It appeared as a bump on the roof of my mouth in April 2007. The second was breast cancer detected through a routine mammogram in June 2017. And the third was colorectal cancer found during a routine colonoscopy in July 2018.
The first and third cancers were caught early enough that I only needed surgery. But since I opted for a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy to treat my breast cancer, my doctors also recommended radiation therapy.
When medical oncologist Dr. Rashmi Murthy suggested I join a clinical trial as part of my breast cancer treatment, the first thing I asked was, “Will it help other people?” If the answer wasn’t an unqualified, “Yes!” then I wasn’t interested.
My breast cancer treatment
Through the clinical trial I’m enrolled in, Dr. Benjamin Smith is exploring whether higher doses of radiation therapy over a shorter period of time will kill more breast cancer cells and have fewer side effects than lower doses of radiation therapy over a longer period of time. After talking over the risks and benefits with both Dr. Murthy and Dr. Smith, I decided to join the trial.
My surgical oncologist, Dr. Sarah DeSnyder, performed my lumpectomy on Aug. 16, 2017. I was supposed to start radiation therapy a few weeks later. But my elderly, bed-bound mother and I had to be rescued from our flooded home after Hurricane Harvey made landfall. And I developed a serious infection at the site of my incision, due to the nasty floodwaters I’d had to wade through to reach safety.
My radiation treatments had to be postponed until I’d recovered from the infection. I finally started radiation therapy on Nov. 1, 2017. As part of the clinical trial, I was able to receive a newer, two-week (10 treatment) radiation regimen, rather than the standard four-week (20 treatment) regimen. I finally rang the bell to mark the end of my treatments on Nov. 14, 2017.
My biggest side effects today
I don’t know what the results of the clinical trial will eventually show. But so far, the biggest side effect of my cancer treatments has had to do with my skull base tumor surgery. I’ve worn an oral prosthetic device that fits up inside my head since 2007. Known as an obturator, it covers the hole left by the cancer’s removal from my hard palate and allows me to breathe, speak and eat safely. I call mine “Grace.”
I also have a few side effects related to my breast cancer treatment, due to anastrozole, the hormone-suppressing drug I’ve taken for almost five years. But I only have to take it for a few more months, so maybe the joint pain and hot flashes will lessen after that. If they do, I will celebrate!
What I tell people about my cancer experience
It’s been four years now since my last cancer diagnosis. And I continue to show no evidence of disease. But I had no clue that either of the cancers found through routine cancer screenings were growing inside of me. That’s why I tell everyone I know to get their screenings on time – and not skip any.
I’d had enough unremarkable mammograms by 2014 or 2015 that I thought maybe I could skip a few. And if it hadn’t been for my eldest brother’s passing in 2010 due to colorectal cancer, I might not have gotten screened for that, either.
I also tell people how honored I feel to be on a clinical trial at MD Anderson. Women have more choices now when it comes to breast cancer treatment, thanks to all the trailblazers who went before me. Now, I get to be a trailblazer, too. And I’m thrilled at the chance to be a blessing to others, and to give more hope to people with breast cancer.
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TopicsSkull Base Tumors Breast Cancer Screening Breast Cancer Colorectal Cancer Colon Cancer Screening Clinical Trials
Now, I get to be a trailblazer, too.