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.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by
calling 1-877-632-6789.