Clinical Trials for Post-Treatment Breast Cancer Survivors

PJ Hamel Health Guide July 25, 2006
  • Clinical trials – now that you’re “cured,” what about those side effects?

    Mary wrote this week about the pros and cons of joining a clinical trial for breast cancer treatment. I never was given that option while undergoing active treatment–in my case, the most effective next steps revealed themselves quite naturally as time went on. The path was never straight, but at least it was clearly marked! Afterwards, however, when treatment was done, I found myself facing a whole array of treatment-induced side effects that just wouldn’t seem to quit. Was the cure worse than the disease? Nah, of course not; not if I wanted to stay alive. But it’s sure been an interesting 4 years, trying to figure out which of these irritating “body breakdowns” are simply manifestations of going through menopause, which are age-related, and which are the lingering effects of chemo and radiation. And which can be treated, which simply accepted as part of life going forward.

    I’m very lucky; I live less than 3 miles from the hospital where I’ve been treated, and it’s one of only 39 comprehensive cancer care centers in the country. The Norris Cotton Cancer Center, as part of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, is allied with Dartmouth College Medical School. Norris Cotton is a major research facility, and with all the professors and med. students around, there never seems to be a shortage of trials going on. After treatment, I wanted to give something back to the medical community that had done so much for me, that had literally given me back my life. So I decided to become a medical guinea pig.

    It started with a chemo-brain study. I saw an ad in the local newspaper seeking breast cancer patients who’d undergone chemo and found themselves experiencing cognitive difficulties. That’s me! I hied myself over to the hospital, and spent the next 2 years taking IQ-like tests at regularly spaced intervals, so researchers could study the effects of chemo with the passage of time. The study wasn’t designed to immediately help those involved with chemo-brain; but it was a first step in understanding it, so that down the road coping techniques, if not a cure, could be developed. Next I did a sleep study, for breast cancer patients experiencing post-treatment sleeplessness. Yup, that’s me again. It took about 6 months, and the sleep-inducing techniques they were trying out on me, while I found them kind of wacky, actually worked. Yeah, staying up till 2 a.m. to promote a good night’s sleep SEEMS counterintuitive… but that’s why these trials exist: in order to examine a problem from a new and different angle. In order to find a solution; a cure.

    “If you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always gotten.” Medical personnel can’t afford to “do what they’ve always done.” The stakes are too high to NOT try something new; if you’re a medical researcher, you can’t be afraid of change. But you also can’t develop new treatments without the participation of guinea pigs. That’s where we come in. If you’ve had cancer and chose–understandably–not to participate in a clinical trial or study during your initial treatment, it’s not too late. Contact your local hospital, and see if they’ve got any post-treatment trials going on. Not only will you be helping to advance medical science, you might just learn something new–like how to fall asleep at night!

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