Lung cancer survivor Gina was shocked after receiving her diagnosis at age 38. Watch as she shares her lung cancer journey including her diagnosis, treatment, clinical trial experience, and advice to other patients. In Gina’s words, “So what I’ve learned is that clinical trials are really the best and newest care for patients, and I feel like all patients should have access and have the experience of a clinical trial.”
My lung cancer story is probably not that unique. There are actually a lot of people that are just like me. I was 38 years old, a nurse at the peak of my physical health, and I was actually training for a triathlon. And I just developed a cough, and no one would take me seriously. As a nurse, I felt like something was wrong because I was losing weight, and I wasn’t trying, and eventually I had to self-pay for a chest X-ray, and the chest X-ray showed that I had something going on in my left lung, but they weren’t really sure what it was. So, I took that chest X-ray to the emergency room for exactly what they tell you not to — a cough, and thankfully, the ER doctor took me very seriously and finally that led to a stage IV incurable, inoperable lung cancer diagnosis. As a nurse, I knew the severity of, of the diagnosis, and I knew that also there was a possibility for some new drugs, and so I’m so thankful that my doctor in Memphis knew to do biomarker testing, he found out that I was ALK-positive (anaplastic lymphoma kinase). My very first thing that had to happen was I had brain surgery.
And I feel like I’m a very lucky girl to have survived all that I have, and I watched the pain in my husband’s eyes as I rolled back from brain surgery and the f as I woke up from that brain surgery. And then the next thing was my left lung was removed, and I remember seeing my two boys and as I rolled back, how they were afraid for me to lose my lung, something that they felt like I needed. And so again, we experienced so much joy as I came back from that lung surgery and eventually recovered, and then I remember the first day that I actually was able to run a mile again, and that was so incredibly exciting for me. So now I was diagnosed in 2015, and now it’s 2021 and through the years, I went through each targeted therapy and cancer outsmarted it, and so the targeted therapy failed me eventually. And each one lasted about a year or so, and I think that through these years, I kept thinking that science would keep up with me, and I kept riding that wave of science and research, and I was so thankful. But we knew that it was incredibly important to continue to fund research for lung cancer, because when it comes to lung cancer, it seems like even though it’s the number one cancer killer of men and women and anyone with lungs can get it. The funding for it is so low because there’s still a thought process that smoking is the cause of lung cancer, and while we know that there’s a lot of people that are just like me who have absolutely no risk factors, we know that research is incredibly important for this disease. So, fundraising for lung cancer research and through our group, ALKpositive.org was incredibly important for me.
I just kept hoping that the next thing would happen, but I finally ran out of the last targeted therapy, and so that’s when I started looking for a clinical trial. And right now, it’s not that easy to find a clinical trial. Within our group, we have some amazing volunteers and members who really work to put the clinical trials out there for ALK-positive patients and to make sure that we know that we’re aware of them. And so anyway, I had a great friend who helped me look through the clinical trials, and eventually I found the perfect clinical trial for me. But it required me to travel to Boston, Boston quite a bit, and so that was really difficult raising two young boys and having my husband, who is also working, not be available. It was just really not fitting with our family to be able to travel and be away from my family so much, so I kept looking for clinical trials, and I finally found one that was about 200 miles away. And it still requires me to leave my family about every two weeks or so, sometimes just for a blood draw, but I’m so incredibly encouraged, because we found out that the clinical trial of this combination drug is working, and we found that cancer though it had kind of spread everywhere in my body, in my brain and in my pancreas, and even around my pulmonary artery, all of the cancer had decreased by about 50 percent. So, I’m incredibly encouraged, and that’s where we are now in the journey, and we’re just going to hope that the clinical trial keeps working and that new options are coming down the pipeline for other lung cancer patients.
A clinical trial is something that has, my perception has completely changed about. I thought when I was first diagnosed, a clinical trial was kind of like being a guinea pig, and now I think that it’s more like being a pampered poodle. So, what I’ve learned is that clinical trials are really the best and newest care for patients, and I feel like all patients should have access and have the experience of a clinical trial. We know that sometimes clinical trials don’t always pan out to have the best thing, but I see over and over again that clinical trials for patients have a lot of science behind them, and it’s an opportunity for patients to try the latest and greatest.
If you’re considering a clinical trial as an option, the most important thing is for you to become informed, really make sure you understand some clinical trial, really understand what the expectations are of you, and make sure that you’re willing to do what’s required of the clinical trial, make sure, that also that it’s conducive to your lifestyle and to your family. I think those are the things that are the most important. A clinical trial is an opportunity for the latest and greatest, but you also have to make sure that you understand what’s required and make sure that you are okay with the requirements of the trial.
If I were to tell you how I’m feeling today, I would tell you that I’m feeling encouraged that I have so much hope for the future. Being a part of a clinical trial has…honestly, if I’m very, very truthful, it was scary at first. In fact, I even cried when I signed the clinical…the clinical trial consents. It was completely scary, but now that I’ve been into the clinical trial now about nine weeks, my last scans were really good and really promising, and so for me, I feel very, very hopeful for the future, and I’m hoping that this is a drug combination that can be brought to other patients and that they can all benefit from this clinical trial and from my experience.
Lung cancer patient Donna had a sub-optimal experience with her first treatment regimen. Watch as she shares her lung cancer journey, knowledge and benefits gained from a clinical trial, and her advice to patients seeking additional treatment options.
I’m Donna, I am 68 years old, and I was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2012.
When I was first diagnosed with lung cancer, I was put on a regimen of paraplatin (Carboplatin) and bevacizumab (Avastin) drugs. I received that for four or five months and did not do particularly well on it. My body did not react well to those chemicals, my tumors, however, did respond as long as I was getting the drug.
After we discovered that my tumors were not going to respond to chemo unless I was getting it all the time, my doctor suggested that I either go on another drug, chemo drug that was even harsher than what I had been on and did not have as good of results or suggested that I might do a clinical trial. I had been told that I probably only had about four months to live. And I decided that, number one, I was in no hurry to be sicker than I already was and number two, that if there was a way I could help future patients by participating in a trial that the trial was the way I wanted to go. I never ever assumed that I would benefit from being in a clinical trial, I was very uninformed about clinical trials.
A clinical trial is a way that the pharmaceutical company or researchers test certain drugs. They will see if the drug works at all, it moves to humans and out of the laboratory, and everything doesn’t necessarily work the same way or on humans as it did in the lab. So…in the Phase III trial like I was in, by that point in time, they’re learning how in the fairly general population, how the drug is going to react, if it’s actually going to work, how much of a dose is the right dose, and how frequent it should be. The clinical trial is just to provide the information that’s needed to determine whether a drug should go forward into the general population or not.
One tumor started growing again, and I chose to have radiation, which made me have to get out of the clinical trial. But after radiation, I went back onto the same drug that we had been testing through the clinical trial, because I had responded so well through it, and I stayed on that drug until from 2013 until 2019. And during in April of 2019, I quit having any kind of treatments, and so now I’m just monitored every four months to make sure that my tumors have remained stable and so far, so good.
I would go into a clinical trial without hesitation if my tumors begin to grow again, my first consideration will be to get into another clinical trial, you are getting the cutting-edge drug. And not only that, while I was in the clinical trial, I had a researcher and I had my oncologist, I had a lot of people really following my health. I had multiple, far more scans done, which some people might look at as a negative, but they were really following me closely to make sure that my response was what it needed to be. You can get out of the clinical trial, you are not stuck in a clinical trial. So, if you get into it and you are either sick or if your tumors are not responding the way you hope they would, you’re not stuck in a clinical trial, and that’s an important thing to know. To me, there will never be another option that I will consider first, I will always consider the clinical trial first. And because I felt that the quality of care I got was higher, and it also saves you a lot of money because at least the drug itself is going to be provided at no cost.
So that’s a huge consideration too.
I would not be afraid to look into clinical trials, I would never accept a doctor telling me that there were no options for me. I have friends who had doctors tell them that they just didn’t think there was anything more that could be done, they needed to go into hospice. My advice is to look for a different doctor, because that’s not always true. And clinical trials are not necessarily easy to find, but I would certainly do my due diligence and look into whether there is one that’s good for you. And I would also strongly recommend that you immediately go through genetic testing so that you know what kind of mutations you might have, because that will drive the kind of clinical trial you might be wanting to get into, and also just the treatment in general.