Finding My Future, or, How to Coexist with Cancer

by

In October 2007, my identity was stolen.

In September 2007, I was a 39 year-old wife and mother of two young girls. Then, suddenly, I was a 39 year-old wife, mother of two young girls, and Stage IV lung cancer patient.

At the time of my diagnosis, I learned a majority of late-stage lung cancer patients die within one year. Just one year. One birthday. One summer. Would I make it to another Christmas? I didn’t know. Already a “glass half empty” kind of person, I wondered if this was my death sentence as the sense of a future ahead of me drifted away.

For the first six months, I tried traditional treatments, and I felt terrible. I was finding out what it felt like to experience the decline of death.

But here I am. More than six years later, alive and kicking. And personalized medicine is the reason.

My experience with molecular testing and targeted therapies
My first line of treatment was the classic carboplatin-taxol combo, combined with bevacizumab—the first of the newer, targeted therapies. Even though I was epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) negative and might not respond, I fit the common demographic for success closely enough that my doctor and I decided to try erlotinib with bevacizumab. That run lasted over two and a half years—precious time. I spent that time with versions of the most common side effects but otherwise felt pretty normal and lived life actively, something I never expected to do again.

During that time, I learned about the clinical trial for crizotinib on the news, and after three different people contacted me to pass along the story, I considered it an omen of sorts and asked to have my tumor specimen tested to see if I was a fit for this new personalized treatment.

When I found out I was ALK positive—and therefore likely to respond to the treatment—I felt relief. I knew how promising crizotinib already was and now I had my next plan in place. I have been on this targeted therapy for more than two years and I have been living a virtually symptom-free, normal existence with my daughters, with the hope for more.

Targeted therapies have been invaluable to my treatment. I know that I am very fortunate and remain in the minority to have my disease controlled so well. Frankly, that fuels my feeling of responsibility to do something productive to change things. So many—too many—die so quickly.

From my perspective, there are two important considerations for targeted therapies.

  1. We should use molecular testing as a way to inform treatment—not exclude access to drugs: I am enthusiastic about the value of molecular testing, and I also believe that its value lies not in its exclusionary potential, but in informing the priorities of a treatment plan.

    Having benefited over a period of almost three years from erlotinib when I tested negative for the genetic marker, I’d hate to see that same possibility be denied outright to others. I know that for some cancers and other illnesses, there is a concern about “overtreatment,” but in the lung cancer world, we’ll take whatever we get because our odds are so poor.

  2. We should better keep healthcare providers educated and up-to-date on the latest in molecular testing: I have heard horror stories about oncologists who don’t know much about the testing, never mention it to their patients, and trudge down the traditional paths without pause.

    We need better approaches to ensure doctors have access to the latest research and tools for diagnosis and treatment. I worry about the patient that doesn’t have the tools to advocate for their own healthcare.

Millions of people are depending on scientists, business people, and policymakers to keep working hard and collaborating to bring access to promising therapies to those in need and accelerate medical breakthroughs.

Now, I live with Stage IV lung cancer. It is a part of my body and part of my identity. My outlook on life has changed dramatically since my diagnosis, but my ability to take care of my daughters and live my life hasn’t at all. And that is incredible.

Molecular testing and personalized medicine gave me my life back, and my sense of a future back. While I’m realistic enough to know that my daughters are fairly certain to lose their mother before they are grown, I also know I have tools to fight with, and a responsibility to share my story.

We need earlier detection.
We need the tools to cure.
We need to increase survival for those, like me, who live with cancer.

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