October 2023 | Cheryl Morgan Maxey, Vestigo Customer Success Manager
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and as an eight-year survivor of breast cancer, I’d like to share my story of the importance of clinical trials in fighting breast cancer. I had been working in oncology clinical trials for three decades and witnessed the impact of oncology research in the lives of our patients. That research took on a new meaning when I, too, became a patient. Not every patient that receives a cancer diagnosis will actively participate in a treatment clinical trial, but participation can contribute to the future treatment plans of other patients with a diagnosis of breast cancer.
Working as a Pharmacy Clinical Research Coordinator in Oncology Clinical Trials
Before coming to McCreadie Group in January 2023, I worked at a major academic center, spending 30 years in oncology clinical trials. Our institution participated in pre-clinical, healthy volunteer, early and late phase protocols. Repeatedly, we would have patients on Phase I studies that would enroll on the next available protocol once they progressed on treatment. They hoped for positive results, but they knew that even if they did not benefit directly from the participation in the protocol, the treatment could help someone in the future. As a healthy volunteer, I also participated in clinical trials from skin punch biopsies to watch my blood vessels regenerate, to bone marrow and leukapheresis collections for lab use. I knew these small actions contributed to a greater cause, helping to create new options in oncology. While I was immersed in oncology research from the management of the investigational products, I never thought how clinical trials would impact my own diagnosis and treatment.
And Then I Became a Patient with Breast Cancer
In November of 2015, I was diagnosed with Stage II-A triple-positive breast cancer. I had found a lump, and my primary care physician ordered an urgent mammogram with ultrasound. During the ultrasound, I was told that the lump “looked suspicious” and even if not cancerous, surgery would be needed. That day as I consented for the biopsy that confirmed my diagnosis, I also signed an additional consent allowing the use of some tissue for laboratory studies. Even in a time of personal crisis, I saw an opportunity to contribute to research.
A breast oncologist who I had worked with for many years became my primary treating physician. He assisted in scheduling me quickly for the marathon of visits with my new multi-disciplinary team. That first day of appointments, I was shuffled from the lab to the clinic, met with three different specialists, returned to mammogram and ultrasound for additional imaging, then back to clinic for a final consultation. My calendar was filled with new appointments for an MRI and CT scan, plus the placement of a port. A plan began to form for my treatment. I remember my oncologist stating, “Just a couple of years ago, we really didn’t have anything great in our toolkit for triple positive, but with these new immunotherapy agents, our treatment options are so much better.” I had options because others before me participated in oncology clinical trials.
Other Patient Decisions Affected MY Treatment Plan
Knowing the number of clinical trials I had managed for the oncology center, my physician immediately turned to the research – some of which our own cancer center had participated in. “We’re going to hit you hard with this regimen, but here’s the data that supports it.” Three weeks later, I began a year long course that included chemotherapy, immunotherapy, surgery, and radiation. One of the agents that was part of my treatment plan had been FDA approved for metastatic disease three years prior, and for my early-stage breast cancer diagnosis for only two years. Three of the four agents I received had all gained FDA approval during my career at that medical center, and we had participated in numerous trials utilizing those agents. I knew I was receiving the best possible treatment, and it was made possible by previous patients willing to participate in clinical trials.
Throughout my care, my oncologist always came to my appointments ready to share new data with me. “We didn’t do this study here but look at the results – this is why I want to add this to your treatment plan. It will drop your chance of recurrence by another few percentage points.” During and after my grueling year of treatment, I also participated in several other supportive care, data collection and lifestyle protocols. I experienced firsthand the outcomes of trial participation, and it was important to me to help add to the growing body of knowledge used to treat patients with breast cancer. To celebrate being cancer free and the end of my treatment, I hiked up to an outlook at a nearby state park and waved my victory flag. I repeated this same hike five years later to celebrate the five-year anniversary of my end of treatment. I plan to return to the same mountain to wave the flag again when I reach my ten-year anniversary of survivorship.
How YOU can Participate in a Clinical Trial – Even if It May not Benefit YOU Directly
Still today, I continue to consider other research opportunities that are offered to me by my physicians and health-care teams. If at your next appointment with your healthcare provider you are approached about participation in a trial, whether it be a survey, lifestyle changes or active treatment, take the time to consider the potential benefits. They may have an impact on your own health journey or contribute to the future treatment of someone you know.
If you are interested in participation in clinical trials, you can also seek out studies for a specific diagnosis as well as healthy volunteer studies by going to www.clinicaltrials.gov. You don’t need to live near a major medical center to participate; you’ll be surprised how many opportunities are available to you locally with your primary care physician.
While I’m no longer working at a major cancer center, my position as a Vestigo Customer Success Manager at McCreadie Group allows me to continue working in research alongside healthcare professionals, and I’m grateful that I still can have an impact on the management of clinical trials. I’m thankful to the scientists, physicians, research staff and previous trial participants that contributed to the treatment plan that I received. November will mark eight years as a survivor, and clinical trials made that possible.