Compiling My Clinical Trial Playbook

I’m standing under the street light on the corner of Win and Win. I’m sure it casts a shadow behind me, but today I choose to look into the swath of light that shines ahead of me.
I got a call back from Serena who heads one of the clinical trials I’m interested in. Serena was easy-going and fun. It turns she’d transposed numbers from my first call – or I’d gone too fast – which is why she hadn’t responded quickly. She called right back after my second message.
Yes, the trial is open. Yes, I’ll qualify if the drugs I’m on aren’t working.  Yes, because it’s a clinical trial, it’s completely paid for. Yes, it’s as I understood it. They’ll biopsy my tumor, send it to a lab at MD Anderson in Texas to test if for more than 400 mutations (think: doors and windows the cancer cell has on it for the drugs to get into). If the tumor tests positive for any of them, then they have 24 different drugs to throw at it (I wouldn’t be on all 24, just the ones that will “unlock” the door or window they find for my T-cells to get in there and do their job to kill the cancer).
My next step, said Serena, is a CT scan to see what effect the drugs I’m on have had on the tumor. More importantly, it gives the trial folks a starting place where they can measure it and compare it so they know if their drugs are working.
She follows up by emailing me something called an Informed Consent, which I learned at the conference every trial must offer after you speak with them. It tells you in plain English what the trial is about, what’s expected of me, what’s expected of them. It tells me things like they’ll pay for the treatment and in exchange, everything I undergo as part of it, I have to do through their medical team, that I have to let them know right away about side effects so they can respond, that I can jump out of it at any time and that I can always go back to standard treatment (think FDA approved drugs) if I choose and that even though we’ve had this phone call and I have this form, it doesn’t mean we’re moving forward just yet. The consent form is several pages long, but easy to read and understand and I feel much better about the whole thing having it. Somehow it makes me feel like I’m moving forward.
In the meantime, I am putting together a chart in Excel listing all 20 of the trials I am eligible for (I’ve found a half dozen more since the conference). I’m ranking them in the order of most appealing to least. It’s time consuming because the description of each trial is mind-boggling. I have to look up each drug they’re testing to see what it does, what it targets (is it my immune system or the cancer cell? What will it do to it? What side effects might I have because of it?)
Gratefully the National Cancer Institute has an online dictionary that I can plug each drug name or number into. It takes a bit of fiddling, but I don’t give up until I understand it. Then I write a sentence synopsis in my chart about the drug and what it will do. In another column I list where the trial is being held, in another column who is sponsoring it (is it a drug company? A research company? A hospital?). I don’t know if this is important, but it might be a factor worth weighing in on later, so I add it. I have a column for next steps (like the scan or another biopsy or a blood draw or a mouth swab). It’s amazing the different ways they can retrieve cancer cells from the body. I have a column for the type of study – whether it’s a Phase 1, 2 or 3 or just a research trial. Phase 1 trials are searching for tolerable doses of the drug. Phase 2 looks to see how effective the drug is. Phase 3 hones it down even further. Many drugs today are so effective that they’re receiving FDA approval during Phase 2.  Still, as a patient, it’s important to know what I’m signing on for. Phase 1 studies are bigger and will take in more patients, but as they’re looking for tolerable dosages, there’s a good likelihood there will be side effects. That’s usually the trigger point when researchers say “OK, enough. We’ve found the right dosage.” This is a conversation we’ll elaborate on once I’ve been accepted into the study, so I’m only concerned about it now as a way to narrow my choice on the best trial for me.

I’m looking at this chart as my new playbook. Here’s where we’re going if the drugs I’m on aren’t working or once they stop working (and they’re virtually guaranteed at some point to stop working). This feels empowering to me, like I’ve thrown in the Hail Mary pass for a running game.

I’ll see my doctor again in two weeks, where I’ll hand him our new playbook. The way I see it now, he’ll either tell me my numbers are dropping which means the drugs I’m on are starting to work and I can coast for a while, get back to my life. Get back to managing cancer rather than it managing me. That’s a win.

Or he’ll tell my my numbers are still rising, which means the cancer cells are changing quickly to adapt so the drug doesn’t kill them. Fast-changing cells are perfect targets for clinical trials and the drugs they’re testing. So it will be another win.

Which is how I’ve come to be standing under the street light on the corner of Win and Win, changing my outlook so I’m no longer focusing on the shadows being cast behind me, but the brightness that’s in front of me. For now, it’s a great place to be.

 

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