Breast cancer patient Sharon was diagnosed with triple-negative invasive lobular carcinoma after she found a lump after working out. Watch as she shares her breast cancer journey through two stages along with treatment – and what she learned and experienced with clinical trials and her advice to other patients. In Sharon’s words, “I do think that patients should be given all of their options upfront. I don’t think that clinical trials should be the last resort.”
I found a lump after I had been working out. I kind of blew it off, I thought it was a muscle strain. I kind of went about two to three weeks just icing it. I asked my mom a couple of questions like, “Hey, have you ever had this type of pain?” She’s not an avid exercise individual, so she had no clue what I was talking about. It had become unbearable. My right breast, it became swollen. It was extremely swollen, red, very, very firm, and I knew that I needed to go into the doctor to see what was happening. So I visited my PCP, from there, I was told to get a mammogram, it was authorized. After that, I needed to have the tissue sampled to determine what the problem was. So, I received the phone call at work, and it was very disturbing, very distraught, I had found out that I was triple-negative breast cancer stage III at the time. From there, I immediately went into chemotherapy that included 16 sessions of chemotherapy followed by a right mastectomy. I opted for reconstruction. At the time of reconstruction, we went in and decided that we would do an expander, and that lasted about six weeks. Then I developed a staph infection, so the expander needed to be removed, so that was before I had a chance to receive my post-mastectomy scans.
So there was a large time frame which I was not having chemotherapy, and I had not received my scans. I was diagnosed in May of 2020 with stage IV. The cancer had metastasized to my liver, spine, and bones. Then the new care plan was to be placed back on chemotherapy, a different regimen, something a little bit stronger, since triple-negative is one of the strongest types of breast cancer.
I felt like I did not have any additional options. I had tried what my oncologist deemed to be the most effective chemotherapy at the time. I was doing research in terms of holistic healing, different I guess, vitamins, fruits and vegetables, or changing my eating habits, removing sugar. So all of the life hacks that you kind of Google yourself which is something people should not do, so I tried that approach. And my oncologist said, “We might need to look into clinical trials.” It was definitely something that I did not hear throughout the initial process, which was kind of a bummer that that information wasn’t provided. I definitely think that my decision-making process would have been a little different had I known about them. So, we had tried all of the chemo therapies that we could, all the targeted therapies, and I am triple-negative, so none of my receptors allowed me to do the oral chemo or any of the hormone therapy. So I couldn’t do that. And so the option they tried for chemotherapy that was being tested was given, was provided, and I did a little bit of research on my own. I asked around in different support groups that I attend to see if anyone had heard of this trial drug. And from there, I decided that since the other options were not going to work with the type of cancer that I had then the clinical trial might have been the next best option.
I just recently celebrated one full year of living with stage IV… And I guess that’s a big to-do, because the scary stats online, they say that once your cancer has metastasized, you typically have 12 to 18 months of life expectancy. So, I’m passing that mark, I’m doing well. I am currently on a new chemotherapy regimen, and I have chemotherapy two to three times a month with a couple of breaks in between. I’m definitely a breast cancer advocate. I like to share my story to encourage others. I know it can be very overwhelming to kind of live with this disease every day, along with the anxieties that come with it.
I was not familiar with clinical trials, I have had three oncologists, and I did not hear about them until my third oncologist, which is very scary. I do think that patients should be given all of their options up front. I don’t think that clinical trials should be the last resort. I think that patients should have…kind of be empowered to make the decision as for them, and the option for clinical trials should be shared. They should be a part of the care plan if the patient decides that it’s the best thing for them. I decided that it was best for me because there were not many…there were limited options available for me. And I think that had I been given the information earlier, I would have done some additional research to see what other people have been doing and are doing in terms of research, especially as it relates to clinical trials. One of the questions that I asked during the initial process was, “Were there other women of color on this particular trial, and have they seen success?” And unfortunately, I was the first person in my area on the clinical trial that was a person of color, so I had not known about them previously.
It was beneficial for me to be a part of the trial. The trial was not a success for me, but I did read research where the trial drug actually worked for others.
I would advise for patients to ask doctors for the information and do additional research on their own, it’s okay to seek guidance. It is also okay for patients to search for support groups, ask within the support groups if these clinical trials have been done in other areas. If the clinical trial has seen success, if there are women of color on those clinical trials, it is important to know as much as you can about the drug. Patients should ask, “What are the side effects? What is the efficacy of the drug? How is the data from the drug used? Is your information going to remain anonymous?” There are a number of reasons patients should advocate for themselves as well as doing their own research, although your nurse practitioner or oncologist may go through the documentation with you, that it’s a lot to process at the time, you should ask for time to review the documents with your family or whoever helps you make decisions, I would also advise patients not to feel pressure to sign the waiver or the information packet the same day. Definitely take some time to read it, do your own research, ask other people who have been on the trial or ask other patients who have been in your shoes previously. I spoke with a number of women who hadn’t completed the clinical trial that I completed, but they had worked on clinical trials in the past.
They shared with me the side effects that they experienced as well as some of the remedies that they use to counteract those side effects. They also share with me their experience with their oncologist or with their care team. So I had a very, very helpful care team. They walked through the release waiver with me. I also spent some time with my family, spent some time with my religious leader, as well as some of my breast cancer buddies, is what I like to call them, to make sure that I was making decisions for me, opposed to being pressured to sign on the same day that you received the release. And then lastly, I would just say really meditate and ask yourself, “Is this something that needs to be done, or is this something that needs to be added to my care plan to make sure that I have the best quality of life?”
I would just like to let everyone know that clinical trials are not approved drugs, but with the help of other women of color who have been left out previously, we can… Or we can ensure that other women of color who are battling cancer and have a better chance. So I joined a clinical trial to make sure that I can help someone who will experience the same exact situation, and hopefully there will be additional drugs created or approved within the next 10 years to help someone else. Being stage IV is more than a notion, but I’m excited that I’m a part of history. So that clinical trial that I participated in did not work for me, but the information that was gathered would hopefully help them improve the drug.
Triple-negative breast cancer patient Stacy was diagnosed by a breast cancer surgeon she works with. Watch as she shares her journey through diagnosis, her decision to join a clinical trial, her experience with treatment, and her current feelings about clinical trials.
I was diagnosed by a medical provider that I work for, she’s a breast surgeon, and once I was diagnosed, because I’m in the environment of breast surgeons and breast multi-discipline providers, my care was probably handled a little differently. So, I was referred to an oncologist who then introduced me to the clinical, the breast clinical trial that was available. I actually didn’t have a lot of questions except for will it help others? And he said it would, it’s for triple-negative diagnosed patients. The trial is an additional drug that helps with the triple-negative, and it has been provided by the FDA. So, because of that, I was willing to do it. My only pushback was that the treatment was every week compared to it being every two weeks or three weeks. The first phase…for me was…I had no problems with it. Actually, after treatment, I was up for 48 hours, which allowed me to do a lot of things – house work, part-time job, working remotely, it just afforded me things that I would not be able to do for being tired.
I always have had my screens, and I’ve had diagnostic mammograms and they always came back normal, so negative. And this particular time, I had Dr. Hampton to just look at it, it just felt like a cyst. I wasn’t really concerned with it. So Dr. Hampton did look at it, we thought initially that it was a cyst and not infected, but two weeks later that what felt soft then became very hard and round, oval-shaped. I was just…in two weeks, it was already hard. So I said, okay, so I had her to look at it again, and from there she said, You need to have this worked up.” And then from there, I went and had another diagnostic mammogram, and the next day I was scheduled for a biopsy by the top radiologist. And he said, “Stacy, I think that you need to have an MRI.”
Right, and so I had an MRI, had a CAT scan, all that was done within two weeks, and they tell me that I had cancer. Dr. Hampton…this is kind of funny because the staff scheduled my appointment, as I am the manager of the breast center. They scheduled my appointment. I met with her, and she let me know that I was triple-negative and that it would require chemo as well as radiation and surgery. The following week, I was scheduled for chemo.
Once I spoke with the oncologist, he said he employed me to look up the trial, and it would be beneficial to others. I initially was not that excited about the trial, I reached out to others who were triple-negative here in our office to ask and what they thought about it. One of the patients/friend, she already knew of the trials, she gave me three different trials that were going on right now. And one of them happened to be the one that he suggested that I should participate in, and she just basically said we would be helping…that I will be helping others to participate in it. So I thought about it for about two or three days, and then I decided to participate in it. Now initially, I wasn’t so keen on it, but after hearing about helping others and that it was mostly, I was told that it was almost like a miracle, medicine that helped triple-negative. And I decided to do it.
During my trial, the lump that I felt once I started on a trial treatment in three weeks, the lump was gone. And each week it wasn’t completely, but it reduced itself in three weeks. And as I continue with the treatment, we couldn’t feel it. I had my provider that I was seeing, the oncologist, and each week it was almost like it was gone, it was totally amazing because prior to that, it probably…it felt like the size of maybe a large, grape, but it just in three weeks, it was totally a big difference. So, I know that the trial is good. It has to be because in three weeks or something that I’m thinking probably grew in six weeks, whereas I was able to feel it, I couldn’t feel it anymore, and that three to four, it was gone.
So prior to being diagnosed, there were a multitude of things that I did not know. Working for a breast surgeon, where we see those patients and then becoming one of those diagnosed patients are totally two different things. What I thought I knew, it became apparent that I didn’t know, and there were things like the metallic taste that you have in your mouth, you can no longer use metals, anything, utensils…you have to use plasticware. The neuropathy that you feel in your hands, it’s hard to pick up anything that’s metal, the feeling just kind of goes through your hand, that means keys, that’s a door knob, you just have to kind of suck it up and do what you have to. The tiredness, but they don’t let you know that you’ll feel exhausted. That’s totally different from tired. So once you’re diagnosed, you have to see a multitude of providers, specialists, you have imaging that’s done, and the team that I have had done most of that for me, so I have a great support team.
Life today is, I have my up and down days, for the most part, my days are good. Once I have my treatment, my first phase went so well, I wasn’t tired. I was still doing things that I normally do with the exception that I had gained a lot of weight. So my second trial started about four weeks ago, and it hit me very hard, I was so exhausted, I have never in my life been that exhausted, that…taking two steps, and I felt like I had ran a marathon. With me being so independent and knowing or wanting to be around my team, I forced myself to come into work, and the second trial also brought on bone pain, muscle pain, headaches, and again, I was just totally exhausted from it.
What you have experienced or endured at the time, during a clinical trial and expressing it, it can only help the next person. But, in essence, I think the clinical trial is not in that only to help someone else, but it’s also to help you…I think the knowledge of just knowing that you’re a part of something that could be enhanced or approved or just help you with your health is a plus. So, working with a breast surgeon and working with multi-discipline providers that’s on the team, oncology radiology, technologist, and seeing the impact that it has on patients, I wanted to participate in the trial because again, I knew that it would help people. So just being a part of that environment definitely impacted my decision in participating in the trial. With the scientific studies that they have out there with the trial, it can only make the research for us better.