by Belle Piazza
He walks into the room and immediately asks “What’s wrong with your face?” This man can read me like a book. He notices even the smallest of changes. My hair, my face, my appearance in general. No, it’s not my husband (are you kidding me?) or some illicit affair I’m having. It’s my Oncologist. I’ve been seeing him for close to 7 years now. Next to my husband, the longest relationship I’ve had with any man. And today I’m meeting with him to discuss participating in a clinical trial at a different cancer center – which would mean he would no longer be my main point of contact with all things cancer.
You’d think I’d be thrilled at this prospect. The clinical trial, although only a Phase 1 study, had a waiting list of 16 people and only 3 available openings. I was offered, and accepted one of the openings. It’s an immunotherapy trial, which I have a much greater interest in than standard chemotherapy trials. Theoretically the side effects will be less severe and there is a lot of promise in the field of immunotherapy treatments for cancer right now. My husband is beyond happy, thinking there’s a chance at a cure. I warn him that there is still much to be done in this field and this is by no means a shot at a cure; but rather a hope that it will hold the cancer back a little longer until science comes up with something more solid.
It’s not like I have a lot of options. Sure, there are trials going on all over the country. But therein lies the first challenge – the trials are ALL OVER THE COUNTRY. Trying to sort through data bases and make contacts to find out what’s available, where and how to pursue the different options is completely overwhelming to me. I have an edge up over the average patient in that I have friends at both The Colon Club and Fight Colorectal Cancer who are able to sort through these mazes more efficiently than I’ve been able to do and send trials my way they think I may want to consider. I read through the trials and the comments that accompany them and make contacts as best I can. It’s a feeble attempt. Ultimately I opt for a Phase 1 trial my oncologist has recommended at Providence Cancer Center in Portland. Largely because it is an immunotherapy trial and largely because it’s close to home – I won’t have to travel to participate in it.
I took the path of least resistance, it’s true, and I’m okay with that. Many will criticize my decision. It’s easy to pass judgment on others when we forget that we aren’t in their shoes and we haven’t experienced what they have. I have no real knowledge of what the side effects of this drug will do to me. I think to myself, having experienced a good number of the side effects caused by chemo, that I can handle just about anything an immunotherapy drug throws my way. Then the day before I see my oncologist I experience yet another partial blockage, with pain and vomiting that brings me to tears and I remember how horrible it is dealing with any of these side effects.
I know of others who have traveled overseas to seek out treatments not available here in the United States. I can’t even fathom traveling to Seattle; a 3 hour drive from our home. I have friends in Seattle who would house me and drive me to appointments, but I don’t want to be away from my family – it’s mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting for me. And I know that whether I travel 3 hours or 3 days to find a treatment, there’s little hope for a real cure. It’s all a gamble, a shot in the dark.
So why do we bother at all when our prospects are so dim? Sometimes I wonder myself. But then I look into the eyes of my son and daughter as they chatter on about their day at school and I know immediately why I continue to fight. My daughter tells me she was third to the last to finish the half mile run at school. That’s fine I tell her, the important thing is that you tried. I tell myself the same thing – the important thing is I’ve tried. Others may have the energy to do more; but this is all I have. I know my limits and what I can manage. Having lived with cancer for seven years now, I know what I can take on and what is beyond me.
I’ll get the questions, criticisms and suggestions of what I could or should be doing. But I know in my heart that I’m doing all I can and what is right for me. There will always be doubt in my mind and self criticism as well; we all have it. I may even wonder if my outcome would have been different if I’d chosen a different path, a different trial, a different procedure. But I’ll also know that I did the best I could. What really matters to me is that years from now my children will be able to look back and know that I tried.
For today, I’ve made my decision. I’m headed into new and unchartered territory. I’m apprehensive and scared. I can’t say I’m excited because my expectations for the outcome of this trial are conservative and realistic. Some will criticize me even for this – saying if I don’t stay hopeful and optimistic, it will hurt my chances. I don’t see things that way. My oncologist is also realistic and makes a follow up appointment for me in two months just to continue to monitor my progress from the sidelines. This brings me tremendous comfort. I talk to my Palliative Care Oncologist who also supports my decision and understands how important it is for me to continue to see both my primary Oncologist and my Palliative Care Oncologist in addition to the Oncologist who is running the trial.
I was asked by another cancer organization to write a short blog about my experiences in the clinical trial field. I declined. I have no real experience or advice to offer. I feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants. Someone more qualified should be writing that blog – not me. For all the talk about the importance of clinical trials and our participation in them, they certainly don’t make it easy on patients to understand them or how to make good choices.