While the survival rate for all cancers is now almost 68 percent -- a 19 percent increase since 1975 -- it became the leading cause of deaths in the state of Kansas last year. As the region's only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, The University of Kansas Cancer Center is committed to studying new cancer therapies with the goal of improving these statistics.
One of the ways the KU Cancer Center leads our region in cancer research is through clinical trials. These trials range from discovering better courses for prevention to measuring the effectiveness of a new drug to determining how to reduce cancer deaths in certain populations.
May is National Cancer Research Month, which highlights all the work going towards preventing, treating and curing cancer. Last year alone, the Food and Drug Administration approved eight drugs to treat cancer. This new research not only gives hope to millions of cancer patients and their families, but can also improve the outlook for those who have yet to be diagnosed.
Two stage IV cancer patients currently enrolled in KU Cancer Center clinical trials share their personal stories of why they got involved in cancer research.
Benefitting from clinical trials close to home
After her fourth recurrence of stage IV endometrial cancer, Marjorie Schofield's doctor told her there were no more traditional treatment options left.
Schofield was initially diagnosed with stage IV endometrial cancer in 2008. She saw Julia A. Chapman, M.D., a KU Cancer Center gynecological oncologist, for a hysterectomy and traditional chemotherapy. She had two more recurrences before her most recent one in February, where she found out she had developed a blood disorder.
A side effect of chemotherapy is thrombocytopenia, or a low platelet count, which interferes with the ability for blood to clot and plug up damaged blood vessels. Though most people on chemo can have platelet transfusions, Schofield developed a disorder where platelet transfusions were no longer effective. And with her platelet count plummeting with each session, Dr. Chapman told her she needed to stop chemotherapy.
With the cancer coming back in her diaphragm and abdominal cavity, Schofield was told she had four to six months to live. Dr. Chapman suggested she consider enrolling in a clinical trial at the KU Cancer Center.
Schofield went home "full of gloom and doom and ready to make funeral plans" when, a few days later, she received a call from Raymond Perez, M.D., medical director of the University of Kansas Clinical Research Center and co-leader of the Drug Discovery, Delivery and Experimental Therapeutics Program at the KU Cancer Center. Dr. Perez told her she was a possible candidate for a clinical trial he was heading up.
"I said I've got nothing to lose, at least afterwards we'll know whether or not the drug works for my kind of cancer and spare some other people from trying if it doesn't," Schofield says. "And if it does work, even better."
She was also grateful she didn't have to travel hundreds of miles part of the trial. "I was so thrilled there was something here locally I could try," she said. "It's a great thing that KU is doing this so many people here in the Midwest can benefit from this new research."
Schofield's trial is open to patients with any type of solid tumor or blood cancer so the drug she is taking could affect a wide swath of cancer patients, if proven effective. It is a phase I trial, meaning doctors are still trying to find a safe dose of the drug and how the drug affects both the cancer and the whole body.
Though it's no guarantee how effective the trial will be for Schofield, right now she said she feels better than she did on chemo and still works full-time at a publishing company. "Knowing that no one has given up on me yet can be better medicine than taking anything," she said. "It helps you think more positively. Even though they said they couldn't give me statistics or the percentage of people this medicine helped, it'll give me hope and a chance. I can help give the doctors valuable information with the time I have left."
"Whatever I can to help in my own small way"
When Kimberly Watson received her diagnosis of stage 2A invasive lobular carcinoma in 2008, the second most common type of breast cancer, she thought it could be treated and taken care of with surgery and chemotherapy.
Watson, under the care of Qamar Khan, M.D., a KU Cancer Center breast cancer specialist, was in remission until 2012 when some lingering back pain altered her that something was wrong. She was soon told her cancer was now in stage IV.
Dr. Khan told Watson there was another clinical trial run by Dr. Perez where she would likely be a good candidate -- one that combines a new drug called reparixin with the traditional chemotherapy drug paclitzxel. The phase 1b study tests how well patients can handle the combination of the two medications and how it could potentially control the cancer and prolong life.
"I was very interested in doing the trial not only to help myself, but also improve the research that's happening to fight breast cancer," says Watson.
Reparixin targets cancer stem cells, which have the ability to grow and multiply into any type of cell found in a tumor, according to the National Institutes of Health. Much more research is being focused on cancer stem cells and how to target them for treatment, as controlling the cancer stem cells helps to stop the cancer from growing and spreading.
While Watson is still in the early stages of her trial, she says she feels better than she has on previous treatments and is hopeful that this new drug is effective in fighting her breast cancer.
"I want to do whatever I can to help in my own small way to figure out how to fight cancer," Watson says."
Being able to still take care of her family is Watson's number one priority. The ability to take part in a clinical trial within Kansas City gives her something important to hang onto: hope.
"Though it's still early on in my trial and I'm not sure yet how it will work, it gives me hope," Watson says. "And I think it's important to always have hope."
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