Breast cancer survivor: Why I support clinical trials

As an 18-year cancer survivor who has been on three clinical trials, I am a big proponent of them – especially at MD Anderson. I joined the first one in March 2010 to see if a drug normally used to treat high cholesterol could also prevent a breast cancer recurrence. I joined the second one in September 2010 to see if an IUD could prevent a precancerous condition from developing into uterine cancer. And I joined a third just a few months ago to see if controlling my blood sugar levels might help prevent a breast cancer recurrence.

Are clinical trials going to work for everyone who participates in them? No. But I think there’s a misconception out there that joining one somehow makes you a guinea pig. And that’s not the case. By the time a new medicine or protocol is tried on humans, it’s been vetted by many doctors and scientists. And a lot of the cancer drugs and treatments we have today, such as immunotherapy, started out as a good idea explored through clinical trials.

How cancer research saved both my breasts

I benefitted very early on from MD Anderson’s research. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2000, I’d just relocated to Houston, and my first oncologist recommended a double mastectomy. But there was nothing wrong with my right breast, and I was only in my early 40s at the time. My employer encouraged me to seek a second opinion.

At MD Anderson, I met with surgical oncologist Dr. Henry Kuerer. He said, “Well, a double mastectomy is one protocol to treat breast cancer, but it’s not our protocol.”

Dr. Kuerer and his team considered my cancer more advanced than the original oncologist had. But because of what MD Anderson’s doctors had learned through research, my treatment plan there was still less invasive. So, instead of a double mastectomy, I just had a segmental (or partial) mastectomy, followed by five weeks of radiation therapy. I also took the drug Tamoxifen for five years afterward.

A clinical trial prevented cancer from starting

The second clinical trial I joined actually prevented me from developing uterine cancer. I was 10 years out from my breast cancer diagnosis in 2010, when my ob/gyn discovered I had endometrial hyperplasia, a pre-cancerous condition that can lead to uterine cancer if it’s not treated.

My doctor recommended a complete hysterectomy and oophorectomy, but I had three teenage daughters at the time — two with special needs — and I just couldn’t afford to be out of commission so long. I needed to buy some time until my girls got through their teenage years, so I started researching clinical trials.

I found one at MD Anderson that sounded very promising and I contacted the lead investigator. I joined the trial, and three months later, the endometrial hyperplasia was gone. I’ve shown no evidence of disease since then.

You can help future cancer patients

The moral of this story is to be your own advocate and ask about your clinical trial options.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer 18 years ago, the radiation field stretched from the neck down to the waist, which can affect the lungs, heart and other organs. Now, doctors are using targeted therapy and brachytherapy to irradiate a much smaller area. Through research, they learned that these new protocols could be just as effective as the older ones, and with fewer side effects. Which is great news for women who are diagnosed today.

Now, I tell practically everyone I meet to consider joining a clinical trial if they’re ever offered one. The research you contribute to today can have long-term benefits for future generations.

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