Category Archives: Clinical Trials

For the record: my contribution to medical research

First, a proposal. All you clinical trial sponsors, listen up. I really feel that upon enrollment in a clinical trial, each participant should be assigned a case manager as a perk of participation.

In reality, it is a necessity.

Take my case as an example. Thirteen going on fourteen years of surviving. A complicated treatment profile that involves surgery, four different chemotherapy regimens, as well as a TKI unrelated to ALK. Participation in three phase I clinical trials added into the mix.

When a protocol for a trial is established, it is viewed as a discrete event. IRB (internal review board) notwithstanding, there is currently no way to take into account individual circumstance. Say, how many clinical trials you’ve been in previously.

Or, do you have a cancer that is histologically different than the other clinical trial participants. Again, myself as an example. My cancer is invasive adenocarcinoma, mucinous, once referred to as mucinous BAC. Although every bit as lethal, it does have a distinct advantage in that it generally stays confined to the lungs–no distant metastases to deal with.

This histology makes me an odd peg when it comes to a one size fits all clinical trial. And it means that I have been subjected to excessive scans that were not clinically indicated and yet were mandated by protocol.

It is already well established that I have mutable cells. When I finally took a tally of all my scans, I became concerned and made a formal request that my scanning schedule be amended. I should add that at this point the schedule bore no resemblance to standard of care, with scans every six weeks. Part of what I was asking for was that scans be moved out to every three months once a participant had been in trial for more than a year. My request was denied.

And that is when I became officially noncompliant–refusing to get anymore abdominal CT scans. Per my insistence, my chest CT scans were also moved to every three months. Eventually, protocol was changed to my original request, with the scanning schedule changing to every three months once a participant had been enrolled for one year and I like to think my noncompliance made a difference.

However, for myself, the collateral damage has been tremendous. I have had a mind boggling number of scans, most of them medically unnecessary. It is infuriating, frightening and sad. Had I a case manager, I like to think this sort of thing would not have happened. At the moment, I am down to a chest CT every three months and brain MRI’s once a year. When you see how many scans I have had, imagine how many more there would be if I had not become noncompliant several years ago.

We’ll start with the small stuff. Keep in mind that this is only tests I’ve had done at MGH. It does not included x-rays (including those at a community hospital where I was diagnosed with lung cancer), scans, MRI’s prior to my time at MGH nor does it take into account dental imaging, colonoscopy or mammograms.

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The thirty-seven blue diamonds 🔹represent chest x-rays.

Brain MRI’s are represented by a division sign: ➗ and I have had forty-two brain MRI’s. In case you didn’t catch that, 42. And I have no brain metastases. 

The black multiplication sign ✖️ represents abdominal CT scans. I have had 54 CT scans of my abdomen. Plus six more, represented by the red circle ⭕ that were combination PET/CT scans (unbeknownst to me—the PET/CT combination). So, a total of 60 abdominal CT scans and no abdominal metastases. Yet. Abdominal CT scans have a formidable amount of background radiation and it pains me to know that I have had so many unnecessary scans due to my participation in clinical trials.

And now the really, truly impressive number. Represented by a plus sign ➕ . I have had 91 chest CT’s—plus an additional 10 PET/CT’s of my chest, again represented by the red circle ⭕ . One hundred and one chest CT scans. At least there is some clinical justification here, as I do have cancer in my lungs. However, even given that, had I not spent so much time in clinical trials, there is no way I would have had so many scans.

Oh and this symbol, the radioactive emoji: ☢️ . That’s a stand in for the full body PET scans and Bone Scans I have received. I should add that when I began this trial there was a requirement that a bone scan be given every three months. I told my oncologist that I would drop out of the trial before I’d get a bone scan that often and she contacted the sponsor and in that case the protocol was changed.

My calculated cumulative radiation exposure

For those who are curious, here is a graphic on the amount of radiation received by survivors of Hiroshima compared to other sources of radiation.

On the balance, there are patients who are underscanned. All of us would rather err on the side of caution. However, I would argue that in my own case, caution was thrown to the wind. As I moved from patient to participant, I lost my autonomy/individuality, as the need for data superseded my own clinical necessity.

There is no justifiable excuse for the fact that I endured 60 abdominal CT scans and 42 brain MRI’s and that as a result of this excessive scanning, I now have a gadolinium deposit in my brain–a finding with unknown clinical significance.

What is known is that no human being should receive as much radiation as I have unless it is absolutely medically necessary. And it is not hard to argue that given my lack of distant mets, those 60 abdominal CT scans and 42 brain MRI’s were not for my benefit.

Nope. I have, in so very many ways, already donated my body to science. And that’s why my gratitude is tempered.

My participation in clinical trials has been a privilege. But also a burden. In forthcoming blogs I shall reiterate my stance that clinical trial participants should be not only recognized for their tremendous contributions to medical research, they should also be offered support in multiple ways. A case worker. And compensation.

The down, the dirty, the skinny, the scat.

Gadolinium: heavy on my mind

You have no idea what’s going on in my head. Really. And, nor do they–the authorities.

That’s an MRI of my brain, demonstrating gadolinium deposition secondary to injected contrast. It is the rather faint, white, symmetrical ‘stain’ (it is actually referred to as a brain stain). Rorschach like. It’s been there since at least December of 2016, when it first showed up in my radiology report: There is nonspecific intrinsic T1 hyperintensity involving the globus pallidus and dentate nuclei bilaterally likely secondary to gadolinium deposition of uncertain clinical significance.

I had been aware of the possibility of gadolinium retention for at least a year prior to this finding and because of my concerns, had once again become non-compliant—in this case, refusing contrast.

To be clear, I have more latitude here than someone with either active or a history of brain mets. I’ve never had mets to my brain, which is part of the reason I have pushed back on scans that were mandated by protocol but not clinically indicated. Part of the rub when one is a clinical trial participant rather than a patient.

The day I found out about the gadolinium I was pissed. Really, really pissed.

As a requirement of the trial we took a cognitive test at each visit and part of that test was to write a simple sentence. I had a monkey in the cage/rage moment; threw a little scat at the keeper, if you will. My sentence that day read ‘Fuck you (sponsor of the trial), I have heavy metal on my brain.’

The jury is still out as to whether or not there already have been or will be side effects associated with gadolinium retention. Although everyone can certainly agree that it’s probably better not to have gadolinium in one’s brain.

And before anyone panics, know that it is still extraordinarily uncommon (and no, I did not want to be the poster child for this one). I believe I am Dr. Shaw’s only patient to date with this finding. And in discussion with her about this issue, she is adamant that a CT scan of the brain without contrast is basically useless.

My frustration was with the fact that I didn’t need the bloody MRI’s in the first place and I have had–at MGH alone–42 of them. That, my friends, is why I no longer hesitate to be noncompliant.

Baller

Let me start by saying my last scans showed continuing stability. Fifty (50!) months and counting; thank you lorlatinib.

And then, a salient detail per those last scans.

I walked out on my brain MRI.

Yessiree bob. Alice and I had talked about the fact that given my persistent lack of brain mets, MRI’s of my brain every three months (mandated by the protocol of the clinical trial) were not clinically indicated. And that it might be more appropriate to get them (yea!) annually.

I hate brain MRI’s. Yep. I’d rather have twenty needle sticks in a row. The percussive and excessively loud noise of an MRI makes me hyper anxious. As I drive to scans by myself, I cannot medicate for anxiety, and so I simply ask them to stuff as much wadding in around my ears as is possible.

To date, I have had 50 (FIFTY) brain MRI’s (hold the presses—I need to get myself up to the records department to check this #. Patient Gateway is a cluster fuck and I’m not sure my tally is accurate. In the meantime, know that it has been a lot.) Wrap your mind around that number in a slightly different context. Since 12/22/16, it has been known that I have gadolinium deposits embedded in the tissue of my brain; secondary to intravaneous contrast. Although it is unknown if I shall suffer side effects secondary to gadolinium deposition, it is concerning and I have been forgoing contrast for two and one half years now.

When I showed up for my scans last Thursday, I was scheduled for a brain MRI in addition to the chest CT (I am non-compliant per the abdominal CT scans, with 44 of them below the belt to date). As I lay in the CT scan I had this little conversation with myself. It went sort of like this: ‘Would I rather be sitting in the MRI machine or in my car, with the radio cranking?’ Then of course the guilt set in. Lorlatinib is months away from FDA approval. If I walked out on my MRI could my non-compliance throw a snag in the trial? Should I simply take one for the team?’

In truth I’d been taking one for the team for a decade now. And, if my walking out today truly screwed things up, I could always get an MRI at a later date.

When I told the technician that I would be skipping my MRI she warned me that patients are sometimes kicked out of trials for this sort of thing. ‘Well, then wish me luck’ I said.

I walked out to my car, put the key in the ignition, and drove north. Balls out, y’all. This girl’s gonna live and although that’s a big YES it sometimes requires just saying no.

For all you tough mothers out there

Check out that slogan 🙂

Happy Day; this one’s ours.

Like all holidays, it feels a bit bittersweet. A reminder of good times but also bad.

Four years ago I took my first dose of lorlatinib (image from that momentous occasion shown above). Several days later I started coughing up specks of blood. By the morning of day six, my hemoptysis was significant enough that Dr. Shaw asked me to come to MGH for an emergency CT scan just to rule out a pulmonary embolism.

As I was getting ready to go to the hospital, a call came in from Utah, where my mother and stepfather lived. It wasn’t yet daybreak there so I knew something must be wrong. My stepfather was on the other end of the line and he began to cry as he told me that my mother, Evalynn, had passed away in the night.

Mom, gone.

I fought back tears and panic both as I drove the hour into Boston. My daughter met me at the hospital and when the tech emerged post scan I jokingly asked ‘so is my cancer all gone?’ No, but almost. And the blood? Likely a result of rapid tumor necrosis.

And then my heart broke because the person I wanted to call first was no longer here.

However, grief was side by side with joy: I was going to have more time to spend with my three children; Jemesii, August and Peter. Being a mom is the one thing that keeps me going no matter what—my raison d’être.

In three weeks one of my (now adult) children will be moving back in with me. The reality is, he still needs his mother. And I am absolutely thrilled that I have the privilege of being here. For him. For me. For life.

Losing it

Earlier this week I made my morning cup of coffee immediately upon rising, just as I always do. But then I couldn’t find it. Anywhere. And I live in a one room loft. I also left my eyeglasses at a local restaurant over the weekend and as their staff’s search turned up nothing, I’m going to have to buy a new pair. Yesterday I misplaced the bra I was planning on wearing. I later found it in a bowl of oranges. Don’t ask, as I couldn’t answer, because I simply do not know.

Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s frustrating as hell.

All these years of clinical trials and continuous treatment are catching up to me. Add in menopause and advancing age as well as the fact that I live alone, in itself a rather extraordinary thing for a person dealing with a terminal illness.

Yet there is an upside. I am now convinced that children have incredibly short attention spans by design (so to speak). That if they were able to mull, ponder and plan the way adults do, they might well waste the precious time allotted to childhood. There is a magnificent advantage to a wandering perspective–so incredibly well suited to experiencing the world with eyes wide open and without bias.

With my limited ability to recall, I am rather like a child. Everything feels fresh and seemingly brand new. My focus is short, but also incredibly intense. At times it as if I am tripping, my senses tickled by any stimulus at all. As an artist, this is a boon. Emotionally, it can also be of enormous benefit, as I am no longer prone to extensive rumination; once upon a time, losing my (beautiful and expensive) blue eyeglasses would have undone me, at least for a time. I regret their loss, but in the same way a child mourns a broken toy–briefly.

It is only when I need to function as an adult; someone with responsibilities and hard deadlines, that this lack of linear concentration becomes a true liability. I would in fact consider it almost a disability, although one that is neither obvious nor fully understood by those around me. I believe that might be because my cognitive challenges don’t reflect diminished intellect but rather the increasing inability to retain, recollect and organize information.

I could use some help–some sort of cheery task master. Someone who would commit to a couple of hours each week to assist me with those chores I now find so daunting (paying bills, taxes, getting my vintage clothing business up and running, managing my finances).

I already devote well over a third of my income to health care and I think a personal assistant is likely a luxury above my means. However, I would like to propose that there should be some sort of federal agency (yes, I’m dreaming) akin to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for clinical trial participants. That there be recognition (on the federal level) that in the war on cancer, clinical trial participants are serving on the front line. And that we, like veterans of other wars, deserve some sort of special consideration of both what has been given but also taken. Financially, emotionally, physically.

I’m committed to continuing to fight the good fight–and I do so gladly. With or without assistance. However, if anybody out there with mad organizational skills and a little spare time wants to come hang out, coffee’s included.

*if I can find it 🙂

When noncompliance is your best option

Last week Lungevity hosted the Scientific and Clinical Research Roundtable in DC and I was invited to be the keynote speaker. Really. I could be wrong but I have a sneaking suspicion that most of my invitations to speak will not be followed up with a second invitation. I have transitioned unequivocally from advocate to activist and I’m not sure everyone is ready to hear what I now feel the strong need to say. In a nutshell, I feel that clinical trial participants are the graduate students/sherpas/indentured servants of the cancer world. We do the heavy lifting–it’s all guts and no glory but we can’t say no because we’ve got nowhere else to turn.

I’ve shared the entire transcript of my talk here. It’s a long haul and for those of you familiar with my story, there will be some repetition in the first half. But then I get down to nuts and bolts (or screws and nails, the way I describe my neuropathy).

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Good afternoon. I am happy to be here today. In fact, I am happy to be here every day.

It’s not something I take for granted, ever. The first thing I do when I wake in the morning is to say ‘I’m alive.’

The wonder never lessens. And that is because a little over eight years ago, I heard the words ‘there is nothing else we can do.’ Never one to turn away from the truth I wanted to know more, I wanted to know how much time remained. The answer was three to five months.

And so I began to let go of my life—and to help my family do the same. Both I and my youngest, then eleven, started individual counseling. I travelled to Colorado, for a hastily organized and tearful family reunion. I said my goodbyes.

But then at my next oncology appointment something totally unexpected happened. A recent biopsy had been submitted for genetic testing and had come back positive for a newly identified target in non small cell lung cancer, an ALK translocation. A phase I clinical trial for an experimental agent targeting ALK mutations had begun recruiting at my hospital. So far there had been only one other participant and he had died within weeks of starting the trial, in part because of side effects of the experimental agent.

It was not a lot of information to go on but I liked the sound of targeted and my oncologist, though cautious, seemed enthusiastic as well. I hoped the drug wouldn’t hasten my death, but I knew that if I did nothing, my cancer would surely kill me. I was between a rock and a hard place but the way I saw it, this clinical trial offered at least a sliver of hope where now I had none. And I said yes.

On October 1st of 2008 I became the fourth person in the world with non small cell lung cancer to take crizotinib. Seven weeks later, as we went over my scans, my oncologist characterized my response as flipping amazing. And all those goodbyes became hello, I’m back.

I got lucky, really lucky. I was at the right place, in the right time, and with the right oncologist. And I’ve been lucky ever since, having now been an early participant in three phase I clinical trials. Innovative medical research has extended my life far beyond what I ever thought possible.

This has meant the world to me and my family. In June, almost eight years to the day after I was told I had three to five months left to live, I watched my youngest graduate cum laude from Phillips Exeter Academy. Four weeks ago he began his freshman year at MIT.

And me? I’m loving life, all of it. 45 when diagnosed, I will turn 57 in November. Between my three kids, art, writing, advocacy and my plethora of friends, I couldn’t be busier.

Of course, I do still have lung cancer. Although I have enjoyed two years of stability on my current therapy, my most recent scan showed progression. I have scans again in two days, and by next week, I should know if it is time to switch things up again.

I hope that medical research will stay one step ahead of me. I also hope my body will hold out.

It has been my privilege to participate in clinical research. But it has also been my burden. I have shared my joy, my gratitude. Now I would like to share my concerns and I feel I have rather a unique perspective for doing so.

There was an old paradigm for clinical trials, and that was that they were usually a one off.

When I enrolled in the trial for crizotinib in 2008, it was with the hope that it might extend my life for several months, nothing more than that. Because honestly, there was no precedence.

Even once it became clear that I’d in fact responded to the experimental therapy, my joy was tempered with the knowledge that I would eventually develop resistance to the drug and that when I did, I was once again out of options. Because that is where things stood in 2008.

I never imagined that I would go from trial to trial, and, at that time, I’m not sure anyone else could have imagined such a scenario either.

But I have and my participation has kept me alive. However, it has come at a price.

Enrollment in a clinical trial requires a greater commitment of time, resources, blood and tissue. And often, additional scans as well.

The clinical trial that I am now enrolled in initially had a protocol that required not only a Chest CT scan, but an abdominal scan, brain MRI, and echocardiogram every six weeks. I might point out that a schedule more akin to every three months is the standard of care when it comes to scans for a metastatic patient. I might also point out that my histology, invasive mucinous adenocarcinoma, almost always stays confined to the chest when it metastasizes, and that I have never had brain, bone or abdominal mets.

Initially my trial also required a bone scan, every three months. I had the first one, and afterward was handed the the same little card that you carry around for three days after every PET scan, just in case someone in law enforcement or at an airport picks up remaining background radiation. This struck me as ludicrous, and also an unacceptable risk with neither scientific justification nor personal gain. I told my oncologist that I wasn’t going to get any more bone scans even if it meant dropping out of the trial. Fortunately she is as invested in my future as I am and as a PI in the trial, was able to contact the sponsor and had the protocol changed.

Fast forward to July of 2015 when I happened to see a report in the Stanford Medicine newsletter regarding DNA damage seen in patients undergoing CT scanning. This line in particular jumped out at me ‘“We now know that even exposure to small amounts of radiation from computed tomagraphy scanning is associated with cellular damage.” I started to think about all the scans I’d had and would continue to get and wondered if anyone was keeping track. With access to my electronic medical records, I decided to tabulate the results myself and what I found shocked me. Now keep in mind that this only reflects care and clinical trial participation at my current hospital, and does not take into account previous imaging, such as the scans that led up to my diagnosis. Or workups for other health issues, or routine imaging such as mammograms or dental work.

When I sat down and counted I found that I’d had 19 chest x-rays but also close to 70 CT scans of my chest. For those of you who don’t know, each chest CT scan, even those that are low dose, has the equivalent radiation of 4-500 chest x-rays. Now multiply 400 times 70 and tell me if that is a number you are comfortable with. I was really surprised when I counted the number of abdominal scans I’d been given; 44. Given the complexity of the tissue in the abdomen, scans of that area of the body expose cells to an even greater amount of radiation. And keep in mind that I have no cancer in that part of my body. Yet. But I do have highly mutable cells.

The first CT scan of my chest saved my life. But is my scan schedule eventually going to lead to a secondary cancer?

I don’t know, but I can’t let that happen. And so I did what any reasonable person would do. I spoke not only to my oncologist, a PI in the trial, I contacted the sponsor personally. However, I really made no headway until I talked to the right person in a bar. That’s right. I have been a peer reviewer for the CDMRP for a number of years and after a session last fall I chatted up a fellow reviewer in the bar—told them my tale of woe. When I concluded he let me know that his wife worked for the sponsor and he was going to share my story with her.

Well sometimes the back door is the right one and this time the sponsor contacted me. I had a private phone conference where I spoke not only about my scans but about what I view as a rather prevalent disregard of the sacrifices clinical trial participants make. And I asked that they not only change the scan schedule, but that they pay for parking.

When I got my response it was from my scheduler. My scan schedule would not be changed. I told her to tell my oncologist that I now had no choice but to become noncompliant—that I would continue to get CT scans of my chest but there would be no more abdominal scans.

I am fortunate that my oncologist truly is as invested in my future as I am. She called me almost immediately and we discussed the situation. To my surprise, she was fully supportive, although she did explain what noncompliance put at risk for me personally as well as for the trial and my institution. I told her that if she asked me to go to Mars the next day I would do it, I trust her so implicitly, but that I simply could not keep getting scans every six weeks for the rest of my life.

The bottom line is this—currently clinical trials are monitored as discreet events, a residual of the old one-off paradigm. No one seems to be keeping track of patients such as myself, who are traveling from trial to trial. I am an outlier, an exceptional responder, and I am also a bit of an anomaly amongst the ALK positive population with my invasive mucinous adenocarcinoma histology.

But that is the point—I am first and foremost an individual, a human being. Participation in clinical trials does not cede my humanity, although it certainly does result in a certain loss of autonomy. And words like compliant and noncompliant only underscore that fact.

Per my scans—I really like to do things the right way. Also, as an advocate, this was never just about me but rather about everyone who participates in clinical trials. And so I would periodically contact the sponsor. What I didn’t realize is that my oncologist was also in continuing dialogue with them about the scanning schedule. Several months ago I got word that the protocol would be changed and that after a year on trial, participant’s scans would move out to every three months, the standard of care. When I spoke to my oncologist, I realized that it was her input, not mine, that made the real difference. But the important thing is, she respected my concerns which motivated her to request a change in protocol.

As for me, I moved to the every three month schedule as soon as I heard the news, even though it is not yet official. Jumping the gun a little, but then again, I remain noncompliant as to my abdominal scans, so what’s a skipped chest CT scan or two. And don’t think I am simply being cheeky—I donated my body to science a long time ago and I feel no guilt when it comes to a skipped scan or two.

I still wish I didn’t have to get brain MRI’s every six weeks—I’ve now had almost thirty and nothing causes me more anxiety than the loud clanking, claustrophobia of a brain MRI. Also, I am convinced that we don’t yet understand the risks—again, there is very little precedence for such a frequent MRI schedule in someone with healthy brain tissue. After reading that the contrast agent, gadolinium, is not readily cleared from the body I did request that we forgo contrast so that is one small victory.

The irony is, were this anything other than a clinical trial, say, a war or a sporting event, I and my fellow participants would not be fighting for our basic human rights. We would be decorated for our valor, celebrated, maybe even highly compensated. And we can’t even get our parking comped.

And yet, I am alive. It is a wondrous thing, and something most people take for granted.

I would do almost anything to stay alive. I already have. But I am also not willing to throw away this second chance at life by submitting to ridiculous requirements simply to satisfy the science and to speed drugs to market. As Richard Pazdur has said, ‘People are not for clinical trials. Clinical trials are for people.’ It’s imperative that we not lose sight of why trials exist in the first place. It is not to advance the careers of researchers. It is not to keep oncologists and hospitals in business. It is not to enrich sponsors and their shareholders.

Rather, it is to provide patients such as myself with an opportunity to hang onto our very dear lives.

*for a dose of happy/hopeful Linnea, check out this video interview about Clinical Trials from the Lungevity site.

Linnea live (I like the sound of that)

This video was recorded at the annual LUNGevity Hope Summit in 2014 and fits in perfectly with the theme of clinical trials. When I refer to starting a new trial, it is for PF-06463922 or lorlatanib (which has kept my cancer stable for 18 months now–woohoo!). I’m a little breathless and hoarse as my cancer was advancing again. I noticed immediately how fast I am speaking– markedly slowed speech has been a side effect of PF-06463922.

Slow, fast, hoarse or not, the most important message here is one of hope (thank you LUNGevity). When I mention going from cure to living longer I am talking about accepting the fact that I would never be cured. That’s a difficult concept to embrace but in order to make it even remotely acceptable I found I needed to replace cure with a potentially obtainable goal—becoming an outlier. At ten plus years (eleven, in April) I am there.

Secondly, the importance of options. When diagnosed in 2005, the first hurdle I hoped to jump was qualifying for surgery. I had nineteen lymph nodes and most of my left lung removed followed by four rounds of adjuvant chemo and yet my cancer returned almost immediately. Two strikes, and I’d been informed that treating lung cancer was basically three strikes and you’re out. My first clinical trial in 2008 was a long shot. I was thrilled beyond belief when I responded to crizotinib, but also understood that it represented a temporary fix and that there was nothing else out there once it stopped working.

Thankfully, that’s no longer true. Sadly, there aren’t viable options for everyone with lung cancer. Medical research got me to where I am today (alive!) but we can’t stop now.