Triple-negative breast cancer survivor sees only benefits from immunotherapy clinical trial

Lori Shults didn’t know much about clinical trials when she first came to MD Anderson in May 2017. “I thought they involved some people getting medicine and others just getting sugar pills,” she recalls. “That sounded too risky for me, so I wasn’t interested.” Fortunately, the Hill Country school teacher soon learned that her understanding of clinical trials was both limited and inaccurate. She also learned that an innovative clinical trial being conducted as part of MD Anderson’s Breast Cancer Moon Shot™ could benefit her personally. The trial would allow Lori to start her treatment with chemotherapy (the standard for triple-negative breast cancer) and pursue other options only if that proved ineffective. “Once I realized I’d be getting what everyone else got, plus something extra if the conventional treatment didn’t work, I didn’t see a downside to it,” she says. A team approach with individualized care Lori was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer at age 38, after finding a lump in her right breast. She went to a local surgeon recommended by her gynecologist, but their miscommunications left her feeling even more anxious about her situation. “The surgeon said I needed to have my breast removed right away,” says Lori, who decided then to come to MD Anderson. “But I don’t like being rushed. I also don’t like having to tell my whole story over again to every new doctor I meet. Not having everyone all together made it feel really chaotic.” At MD Anderson, Lori met with her entire care team on the same day. They agreed that her treatment should start quickly. “But there wasn’t the same...

Warriors within our ranks: Military veterans at MD Anderson

Leadership. Dependability. Teamwork. Problem-solving. These attributes essential for U.S. service members also are highly sought after by top employers such as MD Anderson, and they’re just a few of the reasons recruiting and retaining veterans are priorities here. “Veterans have numerous strengths, but at their core is a willingness to serve,” says Larry Perkins, Ph.D, who accumulated more than 35 years of experience in human resources, education, training and leadership development while in the Army and is now our associate vice president for talent and diversity. “We’ve had great success recruiting veterans in recent years because their service-oriented nature aligns with our mission.” MD Anderson’s workforce includes many veterans, active duty service members, National Guard members or reservists. Here are the stories of three of these warriors. Lieutenant Colonel Carilynne Miller, United States Army Reserves Carilynne Miller served in the U.S. Army for five years, which included a deployment in Iraq. After leaving active duty in 2006 and moving to Maryland, she joined the Army Reserves and had the opportunity to work closely with the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. On the civilian side, Miller was hired by Deloitte as a project manager assigned to the State Department. In 2011, Miller’s husband accepted a job at an Army base in Italy. She moved with him and transferred her duties to a nearby Army Reserves camp in Germany. After five years, Miller and her husband wanted to be closer to family and decided to relocate to Houston. Miller joined MD Anderson in 2016 as a project manager in Facilities. Immediately after beginning her career at MD Anderson, she felt a...

Can immunotherapy treat glioblastoma? Understanding the latest study

A new study has revived hope for the role of immunotherapy in treating glioblastoma, the most aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer in adults. The study used a type of immunotherapy known as checkpoint inhibitors, which train the immune system’s T cells to fight cancer. Although checkpoint inhibitors have greatly increased overall survival for some types of cancer, such as melanoma, early clinical trials failed – until now – to show any benefit for glioblastoma.   We sat down with John de Groot, M.D., professor and interim chair of Neuro-Oncology, who led the MD Anderson portion of the study, to learn more about the latest progress in immunotherapy for glioblastoma. How did this clinical trial work? The Phase II randomized clinical trial was led by researchers from UCLA and conducted at six other institutions, including here at MD Anderson. We enrolled recurrent glioblastoma patients – people whose tumors had returned after their initial treatment. Nearly all glioblastomas recur, and when this happens, median survival drops to less than a year. The study had two different arms. In one arm, patients received pembrolizumab, an immune checkpoint inhibitor, both before and after surgery. In the other arm, patients only received the drug after surgery. How was this study different from previous clinical trials studying immunotherapy in glioblastoma patients? Most glioblastoma clinical trials only give the new drug at the time of recurrence, usually without surgery. Previous studies of pembrolizumab in glioblastoma that were designed this way haven’t shown a survival benefit. One of the goals of this study was to look at the drug’s effect on tumor biology. In order...

5 things I learned after my breast cancer diagnosis

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2017, I was so stunned initially that I felt paralyzed. I didn’t know what to do, where to go or who to call first.   Thankfully, the momentary sensation of panic passed, and since then, I’ve learned a few things. Here are five of them. 1. Choose the breast cancer experts I didn’t have any breast cancer symptoms prior to being diagnosed. I only learned that I had cancer during my very first mammogram. I’d gotten the scan to set a baseline for future mammograms, so the news that I actually had breast cancer seemed pretty unreal. My gynecologist referred me to a local surgeon. She said we’d caught the cancer early, so it was considered stage 0. That meant the abnormal cells were still confined to my milk ducts and had not spread beyond them. It turned out that my cancer was more advanced, but I didn’t learn that until I went to MD Anderson. A family friend insisted I go there before starting treatment, so I made an appointment. And as soon as I walked in the doors, I knew I’d made the right decision. At MD Anderson, Dr. Isabelle Bedrosian redid all of my scans and found a suspicious lymph node in my left armpit. She also found two separate growths in my left breast. The tumors couldn’t be felt by hand because of calcium deposits in the surrounding tissues. But the fact that my cancer had already spread outside of my breast meant it was beyond stage 0. I actually had stage IIB breast cancer —...

The unexpected benefit of being a myCancerConnection volunteer

When I was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in 2007, I decided to be an active participant in my cancer care. I joined a clinical trial at MD Anderson. I educated myself with materials from The Learning Center. I asked my doctors questions. I participated in support groups led by MD Anderson’s social work counselors. And I made myself available to other patients with similar diagnoses through myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one cancer support community. While I was the instigator of most of these activities, it was the last one that offered me the greatest and most beneficial surprises. Over the years, I’ve received a number of calls from myCancerConnection volunteers. They passed along the contact information of patients with similar diagnoses who’d requested support. In each case, I called those patients promptly and did my best to respond to every question and offer my best advice. I felt completely inadequate. A surprising friendship Try though I did, it seemed that I could barely guess at what other people were going through. Our diagnoses might be similar, but our circumstances could differ considerably. For instance, I’d had a favorable response to a clinical trial. Sometimes, other people didn’t. So, how could I avoid reinforcing their despair if the cancer treatments that had worked so well for me weren’t working for them? Then, I was asked to contact “Bob.” I reached out, and we communicated through phone calls and email exchanges. Bob had encountered several pitfalls along his cancer journey, but he seemed to be handling them well. One day, we discovered we’d both be in Houston at the same time for...