Stage IV lung cancer survivor: Targeted therapy clinical trial is giving
me another chance
Everyone is dealt a card or two in life that will pose their greatest challenges. For me, that card was being diagnosed with stage III lung cancer in September 2013.
At the time, I was a healthy 42-year-old who had never so much as picked up a cigarette. Nobody in my family had ever smoked either. So, to say the diagnosis came as a shock is no understatement.
Following my intuition saved my daughter’s life
I found out I had cancer just after the birth of my daughter, Kate. I felt great until the day she was born, but because I was 41 when she was conceived, mine was considered a high-risk pregnancy. That meant I needed monthly ultrasounds.
Things were going so well during my eighth month that my obstetrician said we could skip the last ultrasound. But something told me not to, and to this day, I am so grateful that I didn’t. Because it was during that scan that we discovered my daughter had stopped growing. She’d gone from 90% in gestational size to 10% in just three weeks. Something was very, very wrong.
I was rushed to a local hospital, where tests revealed that I had HELLP syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs in less than 1% of pregnancies. It’s hard to diagnose, and can be fatal to both expectant mothers and their unborn children. The doctors also discovered that my placenta had shut down. My daughter was literally starving. I needed an emergency C-section immediately.
Divine intervention — and an unexpected scan — saved my life
My daughter, Kate, was born without complications about five hours later. She weighed just four pounds, but otherwise, she was perfectly healthy. I, on the other hand, began experiencing tremors and severe headaches. The doctors attributed them to hormonal fluctuations, but after four days of pain and shaking, my husband demanded better answers.
A neurologist finally came to check me out. He ordered an MRI and a CT scan of my brain. But the imaging technician misread the orders, so not only was my brain scanned, but also my chest. And that unexpected scan — which I attribute to divine intervention — revealed a spot on my right lung, just one centimeter from the edge of the image.
My doctors said it was probably nothing, but my intuition told me something else. I needed to be certain, so I pushed to know more. That led to a biopsy. And that’s when I learned I had stage III adenocarcinoma, a type of non-small-cell lung cancer.
Renewed hope with a targeted therapy clinical trial
Because my initial biopsy didn’t reveal any significant genetic mutations, my local oncologist recommended six weeks of daily radiation therapy, nine weeks of chemotherapy, surgery to remove the remaining tumor and a part of my lung, then a few more weeks of chemo.
This treatment regimen put me in remission for 18 months. But in July 2015, scans revealed that the cancer had spread to my kidneys, left lung and brain. It was now considered stage IV and therefore inoperable. Luckily, a biopsy revealed a particular genetic mutation that made me a great candidate for immunotherapy. I joined a clinical trial near my home in Ohio. It worked for two years.
Unfortunately, the cancer returned again in April 2017. But another biopsy revealed a new mutation that made me eligible for a clinical trial involving a targeted therapy drug called Poziotinib. The trial was available only at MD Anderson, so I made an appointment there and met with Dr. John Heymach.
I started that clinical trial on Aug. 2, 2017, and so far, the results have been good. I take just one pill a day now (the dose was reduced twice due to toxicity). My tumors started shrinking almost immediately, and by the beginning of October, they were only half their original size.
Why clinical trials matter
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past four years, it’s that a diagnosis is not the same thing as a prognosis. Even the phrase “stage IV” doesn’t necessarily mean that a cancer is terminal; it just becomes a chronic disease to be managed, like diabetes or hypertension.
That’s why I always encourage other people to participate in clinical trials if they have the chance. By participating in clinical trials, we are changing the course of medicine — and improving the odds for ourselves and others.
Initially, I was reluctant to enter a clinical trial, but after realizing how important they were to the advancement of science, I wanted to be a part of the fight against lung cancer. It’s humbling to know how many people have paved the way for me through their participation in clinical trials. Now, I want to do the same for someone else.