Anna McCree was 26 years old when she started having intense back pain. She was an ice skater as a child who had her share of spills on the ice, but this pain was different. She couldn’t get comfortable in any position and no amount of Icy Hot or ibuprofen made it better. Anna knew something wasn’t right.
She consulted with her mom, a chiropractor living out of state, about what she should do. After trying several therapies with a Denver area chiropractor that would typically relieve back pain, Anna’s mom suggested she get an x-ray.
When Anna’s x-ray showed a spinal fracture, her mom then recommended an MRI. Anna shared the MRI images with her chiropractor, and it was then that the cause of Anna’s pain was found. She had two tumors on her spine, pressing against the nerves.
After meeting with a neurosurgeon, Adam Smith, MD, was able to confirm the tumors and said they could be lymphoma, sarcoma, or benign (non-cancerous). Only a sample of the tumor would tell them for sure. She also had one tumor in her rib cage area. Dr. Smith recommended Anna see Dr. John Burke, a hematologist-oncologist at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, for a biopsy.
Unfortunately, the biopsy was inconclusive so surgery was recommended as the next step. The results of the biopsy after surgery confirmed that Anna had stage IV diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.
Planning for Her Life After Cancer, Before Lymphoma Treatment Began
Now what? Everything seemed to be moving so quickly. However, Dr. Burke was the calm in the midst of the storm Anna was experiencing. Before they did anything, Dr. Burke asked Anna if she would like to have children in the future. Because she answered yes, Dr. Burke immediately put her in touch with a fertility specialist who would freeze her eggs. He knew that the chemotherapy treatments needed to treat this type of lymphoma would likely damage her eggs. Anna said, “I was so grateful that he took the time to consider my age and my future before anything else.”
While going through the process of freezing eggs and inserting a port for chemotherapy infusions, Anna had time to consider a few treatment options, one of which was a clinical trial.
Making the Decision to Participate in a Clinical Trial for Stage IV Lymphoma
Dr. Burke suggested Anna participate in a clinical trial for the drug called Polivy (polatuzumab vedotin-piiq). It was already approved for recurring diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. This trial was to see if it was also effective as part of the first line of therapy.
Anna chose the clinical trial without much hesitation, focusing on the positive feedback they were already receiving about this drug for this type of lymphoma. She had to make a decision pretty quickly, but to Anna, it felt like it was the right choice. “Dr. Burke was so confident in this trial as a treatment option,” Anna explained, “that I wasn’t worried about being given a drug that was under investigation. My mom was with me through all of it and supported my decision to participate.”
“RMCC did a great job of presenting the clinical trial to me and making me feel confident that this would benefit me. It reinforced that I was making the right decision,” Anna said of her decision to participate in the clinical trial.
What is it Like to Participate in a Cancer Research Trial?
If you’re in a clinical trial you may wonder if it’s really working. For Anna, there was a sense of being safe and taken care of while in the treatment process. “For having cancer, I had a really good experience,” she said. The doctors and nurses would constantly be available whenever she had questions or needed them.
Being part of a trial required some more scans and blood work than you might need otherwise. Some of the scans she’d had already needed to be repeated so that her information was available to those running the clinical trial. But overall, there wasn’t a lot of extra effort required to be a part of the trial.
Anna and Dr. Burke were unaware of whether she received the new drug as part of her lymphoma treatments or if she was given the standard “R-CHOP” lymphoma therapy. Either way, she was receiving life-saving cancer treatments.
Throughout the entire treatment process, Dr. Burke helped Anna look ahead with a positive attitude. Even when she was feeling low he made her feel better. “We’re gonna get it,” he told her confidently on a day when she was feeling especially down.
And he was right. They did get it. She is currently in remission.
After Lymphoma Treatment: Staying Focused on the Future
What Anna faced next was life as a survivor. “After a cancer diagnosis, your life is going to drastically change. You will be a cancer survivor now and forever. You’ll need to deal with it physically and mentally. The RMCC team does a really good job of understanding that.”
Because she was so young when she was diagnosed, an RMCC social worker suggested she participate in a support group for people diagnosed at an early age. She regularly attends to talk through some of her feelings and concerns about the cancer returning. “Everyone sort of “forgets” that I had cancer, except for me,” said Anna. “I bounced back. But that doesn’t mean I’m not still working through my feelings and fears about the future. I can share my feelings with people at the support group who get it, because they’ve been there.”
Four years after her diagnosis, Anna has a new job and a new home. She’s busily planning her wedding to be held October 2023. And, having her eggs available to use in the near future is something that really brings hope and excitement for what’s next. Mixed with this excitement comes some level of anxiety. Will the cancer come back? It’s a fear she works to manage regularly and encourages survivors to talk about with their oncologist. Dr. Burke assured her that if her concerns become overwhelming, he will guide her towards resources to help her manage better.
“I feel lucky everyday. I know that not everyone is so lucky. It could be some survivor’s guilt. But I am so incredibly lucky because of my [stage IV] diagnosis. I treat every day like it’s gold because of what I’ve been through.”
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