In late summer 2011, Kathleen Zavatsky, 65, of Oakley, noticed a troubling stitch in her side: "It reminded me of being a kid and running too fast and getting that startling pain in your side,” she recalls.
She mentioned the unexplained pain to her OB/GYN, which resulted in imaging tests that revealed a cancerous mass in her liver. She had no risk factors for the disease; doctors estimated that the tumor could have been there for up to three years without displaying physical symptoms.
Zavatsky decided to pursue liver cancer surgery at Mayo Clinic. During the screening process, however, it was discovered that the liver cancer had spread to her lungs: the liver tumor was inoperable.
"The Mayo oncologists were upfront in telling me this was a tough cancer with an even tougher prognosis, with only one approved drug to treat it. They suggested I go back to the University of Cincinnati to begin therapy closer to home,” recalls Zavatsky.
Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration-approved drug, sorafenib (marketed as Nexavar), only worked for about six weeks and caused Zavatsky unpleasant side effects that affected her day-to-day quality of life.
An estimated 28,720 people were diagnosed with cancer of the liver or intrahepatic bile duct in 2012, with 27.7 percent of patients reaching the five-year survival benchmark. Because the liver is designed to keep foreign substances out of the body, developing drugs that can effectively penetrate the liver and successfully target cancerous cells has been challenging.
"From the very beginning, clinical trials were presented as a real blessing that wouldn’t have been available to me 10 years ago. I always know that if standard therapies stopped working for me, I would consider clinical trials as another option to extend my life,” says Zavatsky, who made the decision to pursue treatment through clinical trials with the input of her husband and daughter.
She connected with John Morris, MD, director of the UC Cancer Institute Phase 1 Experimental Therapeutics Program. After participating in several clinical trials, she saw progress in a phase 1 study of an experimental drug called iniparib in combination with chemotherapy. Iniparib is a member of a class of drugs that block tumor cells from repairing their DNA. Zavatsky began the trial in August 2012. Five months later, her tumors had shrunk almost 33 percent and many of the lung tumors had all but disappeared.
Zavatsky says her attitude about research has always been one of gratitude—to people who participated in clinical trials before her to find answers and for the personal opportunity to participate.
"I was never fearful of participating in a clinical trial because the alternative was to let the cancer take its course. When you face this choice, you realize that you may benefit—and certainly that is what you are hoping for—but you’re really participating for other people to benefit in the future. I am grateful that clinical trials were available to me—especially now that we seem to have found something that is making my cancer diminish,” adds Zavatsky.
The UC Cancer Institute Phase 1 Experimental Therapeutics Program offers first-in-human testing of new therapeutic drugs for patients with solid tumors who have failed standard medical therapies. Phase-1 clinical research trials are the first step in moving tested scientific concepts from the laboratory bench to bedside, and typically include less than 50 people. Trials are intended to evaluate safe dosages, method of administration (oral or injection) and frequency.
The UC Cancer Institute program is the only such program within about 100 miles of Greater Cincinnati. To learn more, visit uccancer.com/phase1
or call 866-724-CURE