SAN ANTONIO (May 28, 2009) – A California woman makes the 2,300-mile roundtrip to South Central Texas twice a month to take part in a clinical trial at the Cancer Therapy & Research Center at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio.
For Heather Hermstad, 26, of Temecula, Calif., logging nearly 300,000 miles over the last five years to travel to the CTRC for treatment has been well worth it: The investigational drug has controlled the incurable thyroid cancer she’s had since age 12, allowing her to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a nurse.
According to Hermstad, small tumors remain in her liver, lungs, neck, bones and chest, but they are stable in size and number. She feels good most of the time. “I’m amazed that I can have so many small tumors in such remarkable body parts and still not have symptoms or pain,” Hermstad said.
Despite her cancer, Hermstad maintains a schedule that would challenge a healthy person. Between treatment visits to San Antonio, she held down a full-time hospital job and was a full-time nursing student in California. After earning her RN credentials this spring, she accepted a job as a surgical outpatient nurse at Inland Valley Medical Center in Wildomar, Calif., about 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
“My research nurse at the CTRC, Pat O’Rourke, has to work very hard with the drug sponsor so that my treatments can revolve around my work schedule whenever there’s a change,” Hermstad said.
What led the California native to enroll in a clinical trial halfway across the country? When Hermstad was diagnosed with medullary thyroid carcinoma as a child, there were no approved treatments for the rare disease. She was told that the average patient lives about 10 years after being diagnosed in adolescence.
At age 20, she returned to her doctor, hoping science had discovered a treatment that would give her an adult life. When her doctor could offer no treatment, Hermstad turned to the Internet. With the help of her endocrinologist, an online search turned up a researcher at the Cancer Therapy & Research Center, who invited her to San Antonio to be evaluated for an investigational chemotherapy.
In 2009, more than 1,000 patients are expected to take part in studies at the CTRC to evaluate new cancer treatments for their safety and effectiveness. Currently, more than 150 clinical trials are ongoing; patients travel from as far away as California, Florida and Canada to participate.
Hermstad’s experience of being told by her physician that there was no treatment available for her cancer is common. Monica Mita, M.D., assistant professor of hematology/medical oncology at the UT Health Science Center, and principal investigator of Hermstad’s clinical trial, hopes that awareness campaigns will open the eyes of both patients and physicians that there are nearly always options to consider.
“Ninety percent of cancer patients are never told about the option to enter a clinical trial,” Dr. Mita said. “Their doctors prescribe conventional treatment, and, if it fails, they tell patients there’s nothing else they can do. Without patients like Heather who are willing to participate in clinical trials to test new drugs, we risk being in the same place in 10 years that we are now.”
Corporations do their part to ease the financial burden that clinical trials can place on patients. For example, for four years, Hermstad has received passes from Southwest Airlines, which routinely provides compassionate flights through its Medical Transportation Grant Program. More information is available at its Web site at www.southwest.com/donations. The drug manufacturer reimburses Hermstad for her hotel room two nights a month, meals and taxi fares between the airport, hotel and the CTRC.
For patients, physicians and corporations, the investment in clinical trials is significant. But then, so is the outcome. “Though I admit I am an exceptional and extreme case of hope, I’m still proof that hope exists and is possible,” Hermstad wrote in a recent e-mail. “How blessed I am that I fantasized of this perfect (to me, at least) outcome and prayed for the best, whatever God’s will may be, and here I am as living proof that it’s possible.
“It was that very possibility that motivated me to enroll in a clinical trial, even if it meant flying all the way to San Antonio, Texas, and making the trip every two weeks! It was all worth it, and I’d shout it from the rooftops if I could.”
The Cancer Therapy & Research Center (CTRC) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is one of the nation’s leading academic research and treatment centers, serving more than 4.4 million people in the high-growth corridor of Central and South Texas including Austin, San Antonio, Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley. CTRC is one of a few elite cancer centers in the country to be named a National Cancer Institute (NCI) Designated Cancer Center, and is one of only three in Texas. A world leader in developing new drugs to treat cancer, The CTRC Institute for Drug Development (IDD) is internationally recognized for conducting the largest oncology Phase I clinical drug trials program in the world, and participates in the clinical and/or preclinical development of many of the cancer drugs approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. For more information, visit the Web site at www.ctrc.net.