Florence, Kentucky, resident Janice Wiedemann, like many in the Tristate, suffers from seasonal allergies.
In 2012, after she developed a cough, she decided to wipe the problem out immediately—"I thought, ‘I’m not dealing with it this year,’ she says—and made an appointment with her primary care doctor.
"My cough did not improve, and she did blood work, and in passing, gave me an order to get a chest X-ray which I brushed off at first,” she says. "However, I really thought about it over the weekend and went in to get the X-ray on Sunday. On Monday, my life changed forever.”
Wiedemann, who had always tried to eat right and exercise, was a non-smoker and had no family history of cancer, discovered she had a tumor in her right lung.
"I went through the normal process—I had a bronchoscopy, CT and PET scans to determine if the cancer had spread; it appeared that it had not,” she says. "The thought was that they could just remove the tumor, and I’d be done. However, it lies on my superior vena cava.”
Wiedemann underwent aggressive chemotherapy and radiation to try to shrink the tumor; however, things didn’t quite go according to plan.
"The tumor died from the center out, but it didn’t help the tumor shrink in size,” she says, adding that they determined at that time that it was inoperable. "Although I had full faith in my care providers, I felt like I owed it to myself and my children to seek a second opinion.”
Wiedemann found her way to the UC Cancer Institute and to thoracic surgeon Valerie Williams, MD, who biopsied the lymph nodes surrounding her tumor and found cancer cells. She took the case to the Lung Cancer Tumor Board for review by a variety of lung cancer specialists who discuss best treatments for patients and offer recommendations.
At this meeting, John Morris, MD, a member of the Cincinnati Cancer Center, co-leader of the UC Cancer Institute Comprehensive Lung Cancer Center and director of the UC Cancer Institute Experimental Therapeutics/Phase 1 Clinical Trials Program, said he would be willing to meet with Wiedemann to find out if she met criteria for a clinical trial.
After running some tests and waiting for her blood counts to be where they needed to be, Wiedemann was enrolled in the lung cancer vaccine trial co-led by Morris.
The experimental vaccine was evaluating whether or not researchers could cause an immune response to target a lung tumor and successfully destroy it.
The vaccine is based on lung cancer cell lines derived from the three most common forms of lung cancer. These cancer cells are altered to express a carbohydrate structure on their surface that is recognized as foreign by the immune system of humans and provokes a strong, targeted immune response in the body. This technology, known as HyperAcute immunotherapy, is being evaluated in multiple experimental clinical studies.
Participants were randomized to receive the vaccine every week, every other week or to receive standard second-line chemotherapy. Wiedemann was placed in the group receiving the vaccine every other week.
Her results are a stabilized illness, with no spreading or worsening of the cancer.
"Now they’re just treating it like any chronic condition,” she says. "I’m thankful to have found my way to UC. Dr. Williams is a wonderful surgeon, and Dr. Morris is extremely intelligent. Dr. Sapp (my oncologist) and my other care providers were doing the right thing for my treatment, but without this clinical trial and this experimental treatment, which isn’t widely available to all patients yet, who knows where I’d be?
"Medical research, like that conducted at academic health centers like UC, is the only way we’re going to find a way to find new treatments and enhance quality of life for patients like me.”
Now, Wiedemann says she’s able to enjoy time with her family, including her son Brian and his wife Katie, her daughter Amy and her husband Josh, and her two grandchildren Carina, 3, and Nicholas, 8 months.
"I’m just so happy to be here—every day that I’m here to see the sun come up, I’m smiling,” she says. "I’ll never give up.”