Ovarian Cancer Clinical Trials Offer New Hope
Something Not Right
“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t dream it was cancer.”
Ovarian Cancer Patient
Six years ago, Judi Carter of Falls City was stunned to learn she had advanced ovarian cancer.
Her symptoms were mild: heartburn, vague abdominal discomfort, a feeling of fullness. Judi’s doctor examined her and insisted on a same-day CT scan, which revealed a softball-sized tumor.
Ovarian cancer, often called “the silent killer,” is the most deadly gynecologic cancer and the fifth-leading cause of cancer death among U.S. women. Warning signs, if present, are typically too subtle for early detection and treatment of the disease.
Judi’s doctor immediately referred her to Peter Morris, MD, one of the four fellowship-trained gynecologic oncologists at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center. More women receive gynecologic oncology care here than at any other facility in the region.
Methodist uses a patient-centered, multidisciplinary team approach to cancer care. Specialists in medical and surgical oncology, research, radiology, pathology, nutrition, physical therapy, pharmacology and behavioral health come together to create and continually update individualized treatment plans to give patients the best possible outcomes.
Unique Commitment to Oncology Research
Six days after Judi’s cancer was discovered, she was admitted to Methodist Hospital, and Dr. Morris performed the surgery to remove the tumor. The next month, Judi began chemotherapy and a 66-week-long National Cancer Institute-approved clinical trial offered at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center. The trial investigated the potential benefit of combining a new cancer drug, which had shown impressive results in its initial testing, with the first-round, platinum-based chemotherapy prescribed for Judi.
Dr. Morris describes Methodist as “amazingly unique among community hospitals and cancer centers,” both in its strong institutional support of oncology research and its level of patient participation in clinical trials.
“Nationally, only 3 to 5 percent of cancer patients choose to participate in clinical trials,” said Kathryn Bartz, oncology research program manager for Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center. “In 2016, 14 percent of our screened patients were trial participants here.”
“So why do we do this? Because it’s good for our patients. They gain access to new and exciting cancer treatments through a safe, carefully monitored and cost-effective scientific program.”
Peter Morris, MD
Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center typically offers access to about 75 NCI-approved open trials, giving patients throughout the region opportunities that otherwise might require traveling hundreds of miles to a major academic center.
“We will find clinical trials for our patients who want to participate,” said Dr. Morris. There are currently 16 gynecologic oncology trials ongoing at Methodist, including seven ovarian cancer trials.
This strong commitment to oncology research requires additional support staff and comes with no additional compensation for the medical staff’s investment of time, study and paperwork.
New and Exciting Cancer Treatments
“So why do we do this? Because it’s good for our patients,” said Dr. Morris. “They gain access to new and exciting cancer treatments through a safe, carefully monitored and cost-effective scientific program.”
“For me, it was an easy decision to participate in a clinical trial,” said Judi, who felt grateful that her participation could advance knowledge and help to improve care for others.
“Methodist is wonderful about the studies and opportunities they have,” said Judi. “These studies are important, not only for me and my own family, but to help everyone.”
Judi is not the first in her family to battle cancer. She has lost a parent, brother, aunt and uncle to the disease. Judi’s sister is now a 15-year ovarian cancer survivor. At the urging of a family member who is a genetic counselor, Judi’s sister had genetic testing done, coincidentally on the same day Judi received her own cancer diagnosis.
“After I was diagnosed, I met with Kathy Christiansen, head of Methodist’s Cancer Prevention and Hereditary Cancer Risk program, for an analysis of my family tree,” said Judi. “Then I had genetic testing. I did it for my family’s sake.”
“For me, it was an easy decision to participate in a clinical trial"
Clinical Trial Participant
The sisters are among the family members who share an unusual genetic variant of a tumor suppressor gene called BRCA2. This information has benefited the family and helped in shaping Judi’s treatment.“By the time the clinical trial was over, my CT scans looked good,” said Judi. “My labs were normal or near normal.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, 70 percent or more of advanced-stage ovarian cancer patients relapse after treatment.
Working Toward a Cure
Judi’s cancer recurred in 2013, 2014 and 2016, requiring additional customized chemotherapy and a course of radiation therapy as her cancer’s resistance to treatment grew.
Judi enrolled in a second and then a third clinical trial at Methodist. The third is an ongoing international trial of a PARP inhibitor, a molecularly targeted synthetic enzyme that has been shown to keep cancer cells from reproducing.
“Ovarian cancer is one of the cancers we can treat effectively but often cannot eliminate,” said Dr. Morris. “PARP inhibitors are a new tool to better control the disease and give women more time with fewer side effects.”
“I’ve been pretty upbeat about my diagnosis because I’ve been able to live my life,” said Judi, who delights in being an active retiree and grandmother of six. She has welcomed the four youngest grandchildren into the world in the years following her cancer diagnosis.
Also during that time, the two new cancer drugs administered to Judi, which were then only available to clinical trial patients, have been approved as leading treatments for ovarian cancer.
“Judi benefited immensely,” said Dr. Morris, “and women’s cancer care overall has benefited from her trial participation.”
“If I can help in any way, there are more than enough reasons to participate,” said Judi. “We’ve got to find a cure for this disease.”
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Full article published in "The Meaning of Care Magazine | Fall 2017