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.