Successful cancer clinical trial results bring quality of life back for local grandma
Sue Alvarez was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012.
Like just about any grandmother, the most important thing in Sue Alvarez’s life are her grandchildren. A mother of three, she’s a grandmother to five ranging in age from 13 to 2. Her “babies,” as she calls them, are the loves of her life.
What might surprise you, though, is that at 60 years old, the second most important thing to Sue is her phone. More specifically, the calendar on her phone.
“I have to keep that calendar updated all of the time. There are people I haven’t seen in a while, so I have to check in and see if it’s time for us to meet for lunch,” she says.
Connecting with friends for a meal, having her “babies” over for a sleepover at grandma’s house, or even a trip to Las Vegas – it’s all in that calendar. And for Sue, who is in a six-year fight with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, keeping up with those plans is everything.
“It’s about being able to enjoy my kids and my grandkids and my friends. If I sat at home and did nothing, that’s not a good quality of life. My quality of life is being able to have a life,” she says.
The first ovarian cancer diagnosis
Sue was feeling abdominal pain in March 2012. She thought it might have something to do with having her gallbladder removed a few months before that. To be safe, she made an appointment with her gynecologist.
“I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I just knew that something wasn’t right,” Sue says.
The doctor said she had a cyst on her one of her ovaries. And because of that, they wanted to see her for a follow-up in three weeks.
Sue was bloated and in a lot of discomfort. She didn’t make it three weeks. The cyst burst. It was at this point that Sue was referred to Deanna Teoh, MD, a gynecologic oncologist who works at Regions Hospital.
“I heard the word oncologist, and I thought, ‘Well, that can’t be good,’” she recalls.
Sue had emergency surgery and started chemotherapy at Regions in April 2012. In August, she was cancer-free.
“I was in remission; there was no evidence of disease,” she says.
A cancer journey that spans six years
Over the next six years, the even-numbered years turned out to be the bad ones. Cancer returned in February 2014. Sue started back up on chemotherapy and again went into remission. Then in February 2016, the cancer came back for a third time.
“Dr. Teoh concluded that this time, the chemo I was on was making me sicker and it wasn’t working,” Sue recalls. “She said, ‘How about a trial?’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to go travel all the way to the University of Minnesota.’”
Sue was not aware that Regions had created its own Early Phase Clinical Trial program in late 2015* . Nor did she know that the type of trial she would join was not available anywhere in the Midwest other than Regions.
“I’ve got to be at Regions,” Sue says. “I feel comfortable here. And that’s very important.”
Quality of life improves on clinical trial for ovarian cancer
Sue met with Arek Dudek, MD, in March 2016. Dr. Dudek determined that the right fit for Sue was an immunotherapy trial. Immunotherapy didn’t fight her tumors directly. Instead, the medicine engaged Sue’s immune system in a way that allowed it to be more effective in fighting her cancer.
“I had been so sick. It had come to a point where I truly thought, ‘This is it.’ But then I got better,” Sue says.
Within three months, her tumors had shrunk by more than 30 percent. And over the seven months that she was on the trial, she saw shrinkage of as much as 65 percent.
“It’s absolutely exciting,” says Dr. Dudek. “It’s great to see patients like Sue have their cancer controlled with limited side effects over many, many months so that they can maintain usual activities of a normal life.”
Sue did suffer a few minor side effects from the trial, include a minor rash. But it didn’t stop her from filling up her calendar. She traveled, enjoyed time with her grandchildren and continued to make plans with her friends – all things she hadn’t been able to do with standard treatment.
“I felt good on the trial. At first, I was super worried because the chemo I had been on had kicked my butt. I remembered having those bad side effects,” Sue says. “One of my biggest concerns was that I didn’t want to feel bad. I’ve got to have a quality of life. I’ve just got to.”
In the fall of 2017, one of Sue’s lymph nodes was no longer responding to the trial. So Dr. Dudek and his team are now looking for other trials that could help her.
“I am so happy with Regions. And that makes it easy to share what’s been working for me,” Sue says. “Hopefully, the information that they have accumulated will help someone else down the line.”
Dr. Dudek absolutely believes Sue’s involvement in the trial will help others.
“It’s a balance of not only trying to help the patient, but also moving the science forward,” he says. “Because of the work that is being done, because of people like Sue, I believe there will be even better therapies in the future.”
*Early Phase Clinical Trials (EPCTs) are experimental tests of medications or other therapies that have the potential to be beneficial for patients whose disease has worsened despite standard therapies. EPCTs are experimental and allow us to test new therapies at a stage of development when we don't know whether they are beneficial or not and haven't characterized their toxicities fully. Not all therapies tested in EPCTs turn out to be beneficial and some may ultimately be harmful. We deeply admire and are so thankful for generations of patients, like Sue Alvarez, who agree to participate in EPCTs and advance our knowledge of what works to improve longevity and quality of life for those who come after them.