How a targeted therapy clinical trial is keeping my bile duct cancer in check

Cancer is not uncommon in my family, but I was still totally unprepared for my own diagnosis.

In June 2015, I was a healthy 43-year-old mom and first-grade teacher who never got sick. Then I noticed a pain in my left arm while I was packing up my classroom. It had been bothering me for a couple of weeks, but I hadn’t given it much thought. I nursed it for another month before finally going to the doctor. She said I’d probably pulled a muscle moving boxes, but I pressed for a scan. Moving my arm was painful enough that I was sure something needed to be done. And I wanted to get it taken care of while I was still on summer break.

The following week I had an MRI. I was pretty convinced I’d torn my rotator cuff, so I wasn’t worried when the doctor asked me to come back for the results later that same day. I expected her to tell me I needed surgery. And she did — but not for the reason I thought. Instead, she said there was a mass growing in my humerus. The tumor was so large it had split the bone. The radiologist suspected it was cancer.

Why I chose MD Anderson for my bile duct cancer treatment

After that, I just went numb. I didn’t hear anything else, except, “Do you have an oncologist?” And I remember thinking, “Huh? Do healthy people really have an oncologist on stand-by?” Then I burst into tears.

After I calmed down, I said I wanted to go to MD Anderson. My mom has been treated there for years, so I knew it provided the best level of care, and I wasn’t going to settle for less.  

Worst birthday present ever: a cancer diagnosis

The following week, I met with MD Anderson surgeon Dr. Robert Satcher. And after a whirlwind of tests, I got the official news: I had cancer. It was Aug. 5, 2015 — the day after my 44th birthday. At the time, I was already back in my classroom, getting ready for a new school year. But I needed surgery to remove the tumor immediately. The procedure was scheduled for the next day.

When the mass on my arm was biopsied, the results revealed just how rare my cancer was. It turns out I have something called cholangiocarcinoma, or intrahepatic bile duct cancer. There was a tumor about the size of a baseball in my liver. It had spread to my left arm and right rib, which made it stage IV.

Targeted therapy clinical trial is keeping my bile cancer in check

I had 15 rounds of radiation to kill the cancer before meeting with another MD Anderson doctor, Dr. Gauri Varadhachary, who specializes in cancers of the digestive system. We discussed additional treatment options. She recommended “maintenance” chemotherapy to prevent a recurrence. I did that for six months, then took a year off to give my body a break.

When the cancer started growing again, she suggested I consider a new clinical trial. It explores whether a targeted therapy called ramucirumab can help control bile duct cancer. The goal is to keep my cancer stable and prevent it from spreading anywhere else.

I’m willing to try anything that keeps me alive with a good quality of life, so I decided to do it. I got my first infusion of ramucirumab in September, and have had another one every two weeks since. My main tumor hasn’t shrunk any, but it also hasn’t grown. And stable is good. Particularly since it’s allowed me to keep teaching first grade full time. I am so thankful for that!

I’m still here … and still fighting

Over the past two years and six months, I’ve had surgery, 15 rounds of radiation, 50+ rounds of chemotherapy and countless scans. I have gained weight, lost my hair, developed neuropathy and battled treatment-induced high blood pressure. But today, I am still living, still teaching, still making memories and still fighting cancer.

Some days are harder than others, but I try to live each one as if it were my last. I hate having cancer, but I am blessed to have my faith, my family and friends, and most of all, MD Anderson in my corner. Because of its doctors, nurses and entire staff, I’ve lived longer than I ever imagined.

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