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Cancer patient takes part in clinical trials, hopes to help

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 25, 2018

Medical assistant Leena Amphornphong, left, takes Phyllis Peterson’s vitals during an appointment at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center on Feb. 13 in Vancouver, Wash. (Alisha Jucevic / Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian)
Medical assistant Leena Amphornphong, left, takes Phyllis Peterson’s vitals during an appointment at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center on Feb. 13 in Vancouver, Wash. (Alisha Jucevic / Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian)
By Marissa Harshman The Columbian

VANCOUVER, Wash. – Phyllis Peterson has spent her life helping others.

The 83-year-old had a career as a certified nursing assistant. She raised four children. And when she learned her ovarian cancer had returned, she opted for a clinical trial rather than another round of chemotherapy.

“My mother wants to help other people,” said Peterson’s daughter, Wanda Walker. “If it can help younger women to not be poisoned with heavy chemo, then that’s what she wants her legacy to be.”

Fortunately for Peterson and Walker, who has been by her mother’s side throughout her treatment, Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center now has more opportunities for patients to participate in trials without leaving Clark County.

When the Legacy gynecologic medical group began offering services in Salmon Creek a couple of years ago, the providers brought with them their affiliation with the international nonprofit Gynecologic Oncology Group. That affiliation provides local residents with access to large national trials of targeted therapy drugs, said Dr. Colleen McCormick, a gynecologic oncologist at Legacy Salmon Creek.

“We have a lot of those opportunities open here,” McCormick said, “which is really, really exciting.”

At the heart of those trials is targeted therapies.

Traditional chemotherapy treatment is like swinging a big bat, McCormick said. The bat will hit everything in its path, and while the bat will strike cancer cells, it will also hit the noncancerous cells. In addition to the collateral damage, there are side effects related to the toxicity of the treatment, she said.

“Targeted therapies is really refining that,” McCormick said.

Cancerous cells do something different than noncancerous cells, she said. So targeted therapies attack those differences at the cellular level, resulting in less toxicity and fewer side effects, McCormick said.

The targeted therapies are also more personalized, rather than following a course of treatment used for all cancers of an organ, McCormick said.

Legacy Salmon Creek now has eight targeted therapy trials open for women with gynecologic cancers. Some of the trials are specific to women experiencing recurrences, others are aimed at prolonging – or, ideally, preventing – recurrences before they happen.

“People have been really excited, especially the ovarian cancer patients,” McCormick said.

Count Peterson among those excited patients.

The Washougal woman was diagnosed with ovarian cancer Nov. 3, 2016. She underwent three rounds of chemotherapy, surgery and another three rounds of chemo.

The treatment was tough – daylong IV infusions every few weeks – but Peterson responded well. She healed quickly from surgery. And three months after completing treatment, her lab work looked good.

But by six months post-treatment, Peterson’s cancer was back.

“Mom was feeling so well,” Walker said. “That’s why it’s called the silent killer. Mom felt fabulous even though it was coming back.”

McCormick gave her patient three options: undergo another round of chemotherapy, enroll in a clinical trial, or do nothing.

Peterson knew immediately she was going to enroll in a trial. Furthering research was important, she told her daughter, so other women don’t have to experience ovarian cancer.

“If it’ll help somebody else, I’m more than happy to do it,” Peterson said.

And so far, so good. Peterson began taking a daily oral chemotherapy drug, olaparib, about five weeks ago. She’s experienced pain in her feet recently, but, otherwise, feels “super duper,” she said.

Being able to offer patients who experience recurrences, like Peterson, with the trial option is important, McCormick said. In the past, making the choice to do more to fight their cancer was difficult because it came with more toxicity and side effects. Targeted therapies, she said, allow them to do more without compromising their quality of life.

“It’s a really exciting time to be an oncologist, to have these therapies that will hopefully increase both quality and quantity of time,” McCormick said.

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