Paying it Forward, TwiceA first week at a new job is full of hope and a few anxieties too. For Karen Bauer, especially so. It was February 28, 2012, and she had just started a new job at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. It was also the same time she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.
The news floored Karen, 48. An active, health-conscious mother of two and a respiratory therapist/pulmonary function technician, she was an unlikely candidate for the disease. No history in her family. No hint of anything amiss. Her mammograms, until that fateful day in February, had been normal.
Despite early detection, Karen’s diagnosis would require surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Luckily, breast cancer discovered early is usually curable; many survivors resume normal lifestyles and can look forward to long lives.
Was there a silver lining in what she called this “major disruption” in her life?
As a former Medical College of Wisconsin staff member, Karen was aware of the pluses and minuses of clinical trials. ”Working in the medical field, I know medicine is constantly evolving,” she said.
Karen’s main concerns were: Was she qualified to undergo a clinical trial at all? And how much more disruption would it cause?
The silver lining kicked in. She was eligible for a clinical trial investigating a different way to deliver radiation therapy at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, led by Adam Currey, MD. The study is nationwide, involving thousands of breast cancer patients. “It’s a big study with a big question,” said Dr. Currey, a Medical College of Wisconsin radiation oncologist. Actually two questions: What is the result compared to the standard, and what are the side effects?
Participation in a clinical trial is a serious decision, according to Dr. Currey: “We tell potential participants to think long and hard about it, and give them the information they need to make an informed decision.”
Karen had considered it carefully, and what she found appealing was the short duration of the radiation phase: Treat only the affected area with intense radiation delivered daily over one week, rather than smaller doses over the usual six weeks. “It was a fast-track treatment,” Karen said.
Still, “you’re up and down – that’s what makes cancer so hard,” she said. Which brings us to Karen’s second clinical trial, led by Christopher Chitambar, MD, Medical College of Wisconsin hematologist/oncologist. This study focuses on the severe spikes in energy that breast cancer patients experience when undergoing chemotherapy. Fatigue is common to nearly all cancer treatments. For some patients, the fatigue is intermittent and manageable. For others, it is persistent: “They don’t bounce back,” Dr. Chitambar said. In 2011, Dr. Chitambar authored a fatigue study, writing an ironclad protocol that provides the scientific basis in any clinical trial.
Thanks to Karen’s participation, and that of 67 others, Dr. Chitambar now has enough data to get down to the research nitty gritty: Crunching the numbers from the lab work, analyzing cellular changes that may have occurred, collecting patient insights – a ton of data to pinpoint biological factors of fatigue. Then, it’s on to publishing the findings and awaiting the reaction from peers around the country.
Karen sailed through the two trials, according to both doctors. She was able to schedule treatment around her part-time position and focus on her young patients with the support of her department at Children’s Hospital. She finished her “fast-track” radiation therapy just before her elder son’s high school graduation and attended the milestone event. Her hair’s grown back, and she has taken up yoga. Her life is minus one big disruption and nearly back to normal.
Not surprisingly, Karen is an advocate for clinical trials: “Somebody did the trials before me. It was my turn to pay it forward.”
Follow-up: Karen is checked at three months and eventually, at six-month intervals over five years.
On Karen’s team:
Adam Currey, MD, Medical College of Wisconsin radiation oncologist
Christopher R. Chitambar, MD, FACP, Medical College of Wisconsin hematologist/oncologist
Tracy Kelly, MD, Medical College of Wisconsin radiation oncologist
Alonzo P. Walker, MD, Medical College of Wisconsin surgical oncology and director of the Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin Breast Cancer Program
Last Review Date: July 25, 2013
Online Editor(s): Shannon Krause