Debbie Ann Heckeroth wants everyone to know it’s possible to live a
good life while having stage IV cancer.
Debbie lived in California when she was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in 2002. She went through a few
rounds of radioactive iodine treatment there before her physician
discovered tumors in her lungs. In 2004, her thyroid cancer reached
stage IV, and she was told she needed to go to another hospital for clinical trials.
“You’d think the hardest thing would be being told you have cancer,”
Debbie says. “But being told, ‘There’s nothing more we can do for you
at this facility,’ you’re in a daze. You walk around trying to figure
out how it could possibly be that you’re in your early 40s and you’ve
just been told, ‘This is it.’”
When she was told that clinical trials were in her future, she
immediately knew that she wanted to go to MD Anderson.
“I chose MD Anderson not only because it
was recommended by friends, but also because of its worldwide
reputation,” she says.
Finding hope in a Phase I clinical trial
“My first doctor was Naifa Busaidy, M.D. I was completely happy with
her. She would not leave the room until every single question I had
was answered to exactly my level of expectation,” Debbie says. “I also
had a lot of hope. Not only did I feel like I would live, I felt by
the time that something needed to be done again, the progress was
going to be made here with the clinical trials or new medications was
going to help me.”
In 2008, Debbie started a Phase I clinical trial of a combination of
Sorafenib and Tipifarnib, two chemotherapy medications that target the
cancer at a microcellular level. She quickly saw positive effects.
Within two months, her tumors started shrinking.
“When I came back for four and six months, I had a lot more
shrinkage than the first time,” Debbie says. “It stayed that way for
probably the first seven or eight months, then it just stopped. My
tumors stopped growing, but they also stopped shrinking.”
Debbie says that the dosage of the medication has changed a few
times, but she’s been stable for the eight years she’s been on them.
“To me, stable is the new remission,” she says.
Deciding what’s next after the clinical trial
Debbie’s clinical trial will end in early 2017, and she and Busaidy
are already going through all of her options for treatment.
“I’m not worried. I’m not scared. I’m not nervous at all,” Debbie says.
One reason she’s not worried is because of one of her favorite
things about MD Anderson: think tanks.
“Your case can be brought up in a room full of brilliant people who
will hash out what might or might not work,” Debbie says. “That was
really huge for me: when I found out my name would be brought up as a
case study and the best minds were all working on it.”
Advice for others facing a stage IV cancer diagnosis
Debbie went into a clinical trial without knowing anyone who had
been part of one. She hopes her story will inspire other people,
especially those who are still on the fence about joining one.
“When I started clinical trials, I thought you would die or be cured
in a year,” Debbie says. “I had no idea you could survive with stage
IV cancer as long as I have. I don’t see my passing in the future. I
just have hope.”
She also wants others to know that it is possible to live a good
life after receiving a cancer diagnosis.
“I had no clue how many people are actually out in the world who are
stage IV, and you’d never know it just by looking at them,” Debbie
says. “You can still live with cancer.”
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