Clinical trial participants help pave the way to new avenues of cancer treatment
At age 74, Jane Webb is a two-time survivor of cancer.
Just over 40 years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a total mastectomy, the best course of treatment at the time.
“We really didn’t have much in the way of chemotherapy back then,” she says. “Surgery was the best choice.”
Jane healed and moved on. Cancer-free for years, she decided to “pay back” her good fortune by becoming a volunteer at Victory in the Valley, a local cancer support group.
Then, two years ago, a strange-looking mole on her foot was found to be melanoma, the potentially deadly skin cancer that last year killed more than 9,000 Americans.
Just as with her first cancer, her doctor used surgery to remove the growth. She required surgery again a year later, when the cancer spread to her lymph nodes. The next step in her treatment would have to be sometimes-harsh chemotherapy.
“But Dr. Dakhil had a different idea,” she says. “He suggested I take part in a trial for new melanoma treatment — and I was really excited about that.”
Shaker Dakhil, MD, medical director for Oncology Services at Via Christi Hospital in Wichita and president of Cancer Center of Kansas, compares Jane’s trial therapy to a “heat-seeking missile” that targets and blocks the specific genes inside a tumor that are causing her cancer.
After a year of treatment, Dr. Dakhil adds, “she’s doing just great.”
“This sort of targeted therapy is the new frontier of cancer treatment, and it’s having great success against all kinds of cancer,” he says.
New hope for Kansans with cancer
Since 1983, Via Christi has partnered with Wichita Community Clinical Oncology Program (for which Dr. Dakhil is associate principal investigator) and Cancer Center of Kansas to bring national clinical trials to central Kansas. Wichita CCOP is one of 63 community clinical oncology programs nationwide that are sponsored and funded by the National Cancer Institute. It currently offers 122 clinical trials for all sorts of adult cancers, many of which are the same available at such renowned hospitals as M.D. Anderson in Houston and the Mayo Clinic.
While many trials test new ways of treating cancer, others focus on helping patients live as symptom-free as possible during and after treatment, or preventing cancer altogether.
Since Wichita CCOP began, more than 12,000 patients have benefited from its clinical trials, says Keisha Humphries, RN, BSN, OCN, who manages the program and is service line administrator for Oncology at Via Christi Hospitals in Wichita. Patient and physician participation in the Wichita program is among the highest of any CCOP in the nation. Still, she adds, fewer than 10 percent of local cancer patients choose to participate in trials. Her goal is to boost those numbers.
“Patients sometimes are hesitant to take part in clinical trials because they’re afraid it will make them feel like ‘lab rats,’” says Humphries. “The fact is, as part of a clinical trial they’ll receive nothing less than the best current treatment, and possibly the treatment that will become the next best treatment.
“And, we’ll walk with them through the entire process, holding their hands and answering their questions so they’ll never feel alone,” she says.
Once Jane was accepted for her clinical trial, Dr. Dakhil and a Wichita CCOP nurse thoroughly briefed her on her treatment regimen and prepared her for possible side effects.
During her eight rounds of treatment, she relaxed in a “large comfy recliner” while a clear liquid entered her veins through an IV drip. Each treatment took about 90 minutes, so she passed the time resting and reading. Nurses constantly monitored her vital signs and watched for adverse reactions to the drug through the treatment and an hour afterward.
“Overall, I felt just fine,” Jane says. “I never was sick during the treatment.
“The side effects were all minor — a slight rash, a dry mouth, a poor appetite — but my doctor followed up with me about each of them and we managed them with simple treatments.”
“I truly feel blessed to have been part of this trial,” she says, now that she’s moved from the active treatment phase into the quarterly maintenance phase. “And I’m so thankful for doctors who make sure their patients have access to these