Part of the Possibility

Why one woman chose a clinical trial for her cancer care

On meeting Cindy Carroll one might be tempted to describe her as petite. She's slight of build and just over five feet tall. Talk to her for any length of time, however, and that impression quickly changes.

Focus article photo

Cindy Carroll, breast cancer clinical trial participant. "I didn’t choose to get cancer, but I've decided that I can choose how I will have cancer."

There is a sureness and strength about Cindy that can only be described as big. Perhaps it's because Cindy has faced some big issues and decisions in the last few years. Among them was hearing on the day after Christmas last year that the dimple that had developed in her breast was due to a fast-growing breast cancer.

Cindy chose to have a mastectomy to remove the tumor, and then learned from the pathology report that her breast cancer was high-risk, a type referred to as "triple negative." Hormone therapy and Herceptin, two common approaches used after surgery to prevent recurrence, do not work for patients with triple negative breast cancers. Cindy needed chemotherapy.

When discussing chemotherapy options with her oncologist, Dr. Bradley Arrick, Cindy learned that she was eligible for a clinical trial. She agreed to participate almost immediately. "My husband, Joe, died of renal cancer," she explains. "But before that, his life was extended by a series of treatments that had been tested in clinical trials. Joe got extra life from those drugs. Without the people who were willing to participate in the clinical trials that developed them, Joe would have died much sooner."

With cancer, Cindy says, comes a feeling of losing control—of your life, and of what's happening in your body and to your body. Being able to choose how she deals with the cancer helps her to take back control. "I didn't choose to get cancer," Cindy says. "But I've decided that I can choose how I will have cancer. And I choose to be positive, to not get too down, and to live normally."

Photo: (left to right) Bradley A. Arrick, MD, PhD; Cindy Carroll; and Ellen S. Parker, RN, OCN

(left to right) Bradley A. Arrick, MD, PhD; Cindy Carroll; and Ellen S. Parker, RN, OCN

For Cindy, taking control of her cancer also meant learning as much as she could about her options. Cindy understood that participation in the clinical trial was her choice, and that she could choose at any point to leave the study. "I got a lot of literature to read, and I went to the SWOG website to get more information." SWOG—Southwest Oncology Group—is a large clinical trial cooperative group, and the sponsor of Cindy's clinical trial.

The trial uses the same drugs that Cindy would get as "standard of care" for her particular type of cancer, but gives the drugs in different doses and order. Because it's a phase III trial, its goal is to compare this new method to the current standard of care to determine which is better. And that requires enrolling lots of women around the country.

Before she began the trial, Cindy also met with a clinical research nurse, Ellen Parker, RN. One of seven nurses in the Cancer Center's Office of Clinical Research, Parker provides information and support for women participating in breast cancer trials. She explained the details of the trial, including any risks and benefits, to ensure that Cindy was giving her complete and "informed consent" in participating. Now Parker checks in with Cindy each time she is here for her treatment, and runs any necessary interference along the way.

Cindy says the clinical research program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center works well. More important, she says, the results of clinical trials are critical, and something she wants to be a part of. "I know that what's happening with my cancer care has been shaped by the thousands of women before me who were willing to participate in clinical trials. I want to be part of that possibility—of giving another woman life."

October 20, 2009