Before Gail Barr was diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine mammogram in 2013, a slight thickening in her right breast was her only clue that something was wrong.
“I’d neglected my mammograms for about three years because I didn’t have any risk factors,” says Gail, who lives in the Houston area. “But one breast just seemed smaller than the other. It was suspicious.”
Gail’s doctor didn’t know anyone at MD Anderson and thought she wouldn’t be able to get an appointment quickly, so she referred her to another oncologist. But Gail went home and requested an appointment at MD Anderson anyway.
“I went to MD Anderson with my father when he had lung cancer back in 2003, and it struck me as a very patient-oriented place,” she says. “I still feel that way today. Even though it’s so huge, MD Anderson responded quickly. I got in to see a doctor within a week. And because I live just outside of Houston in Pearland, it’s only 20 minutes away.”
Coming to MD Anderson for breast cancer treatment
Once at MD Anderson, Mariana Chavez Mac Gregor, M.D., performed multiple tests to properly stage the cancer. Initially, Gail had been diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer, but because the cancer had spread to her bones, her diagnosis changed to stage IV de novo metastatic ER+, HER2- breast cancer.
“Dr. Chavez Mac Gregor was very good about explaining things to me and keeping things in perspective,” Gail recalls. “She said, ‘Even though we can’t cure this, we can treat it. And if one treatment fails, we just move on to the next one.’ She said to think of it like diabetes — it’s a chronic disease for which I will need treatment the rest of my life.”
Phase III clinical trial enhances standard treatment
Chavez Mac Gregor prescribed Gail an anti-hormonal drug called Letrozole and encouraged her to enroll in a clinical trial for another drug, Ibrance, which was showing tremendous promise. When added to patients’ standard treatment, Ibrance has been doubling, and sometimes tripling, the length of time before stage IV breast cancer advances.
“When I started the clinical trial, the drug was still in the early stages of testing, so it was just a number,” Gail says. “But it got fast-tracked because it was showing such progress. My tumor has shrunk by more than 70%, and I’ve had no disease progression since November 2013.”
The benefits of clinical trials at MD Anderson
Today, Gail tells everyone she meets about the benefits of clinical trials at MD Anderson.
“I’m glad I came here first because I’ve been stable for nearly three years now,” Gail says. “The trial I am in would not have been available elsewhere.”
Like many people, Gail originally thought of clinical trials as a last resort, or something you did when you ran out of other options.
“I was surprised when a clinical trial was offered as a first treatment,” Gail says. “So if you’re ever offered one, don’t dismiss it. It doesn’t mean you’re at the end of the road. And you may be missing out on a new drug that is very good.”