Judy, a 56-year-old nurse practitioner working in palliative care, a field where comfort care is given to a patient who has a serious or life-threatening disease, such as cancer, was originally diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer in 2003. After surgery with reconstruction, four rounds of chemotherapy, and hormone therapy for five years, she went into remission for ten years.
In December of 2012, the cancer recurred in her lungs and bones, and began progressing as hormone treatments ceased to work.
“I used to think that being told you have cancer is one of the worst things you could hear,” she said. “But when you’re told your cancer is back and we can’t cure it, that’s the worst thing you can hear.”
It was then that her oncologist, Dr. Patrick Murphy with Tennessee Oncology, a part of the Sarah Cannon Research Institute network, referred her to a Sarah Cannon Research Institute clinical trial for a phase I drug named abemaciclib—which targets Judy’s specific type of cancer. Abemaciclib, like most inhibitors, works by interrupting the chemical pathways that allow cancer cells to multiply. This, in turn, means it is not a curative treatment, but it does halt the progression of the cancer and keep it under control.
Judy began her treatment in June 2014. She now takes a half-day off of work each month, during which time she visits the clinical trial providers. While there, they check her vitals, draw her blood, perform an assessment, give her an injection for her bone metastasis and help her manage any side effects. She also undergoes a CT scan every eight weeks. She takes the clinical trial drug twice a day along with an aromatase inhibitor, which stops the conversion of androgen to estrogen, meaning less estrogen is available to stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells.
Judy felt positive effects almost immediately.
“Before I started the clinical trial, I was having severe pain. I was taking narcotic pain medication every day, sleeping on a heating pad every night. Since I started the clinical trial drug, I’ve taken zero pain medicine, have not had to use my heating pad, and have felt very good.”
“People are actually amazed that I look as well as I do,” she added. “I’m very, very pleased with the response to this clinical trial drug. The only down side is the GI side effects. They are very inconvenient but well worth the result from the drug.”
What she's most thankful for, though, is her renewed sense of hope and the immense gratitude she feels for each well-lived day.
“Having cancer has really taught me that every day is a gift,” she said. “As a nurse practitioner, I know what I have; I know what I’m dealing with; and it makes me really appreciate days that I feel really good. It makes me appreciate my family more, my friends; and more often I’m telling people how important they are to me and how much I care for them.”
But one person in particular deserves special recognition: “I have the most amazing support person in my husband,” she said. “He’s been encouraging me every step of the way and has never grown weary of me saying ‘I just don’t feel well today.’ He’s been amazing.”