The job of getting well

Mom endures cancer treatment in hopes daughter won't have to

October 15, 2008|By Articles by Stephanie Desmon | Articles by Stephanie Desmon, and

As Darby Steadman steps out of her champagne Volvo station wagon, the valet parking attendants at the Johns Hopkins garage warmly welcome one of their regulars. She'll make the 30-minute trip from her Severna Park home every day this week and more than a dozen times this month.

In Baltimore, she will endure a half-dozen blood draws, a dose of chemotherapy, a dose of another intravenous drug, 12 shots of an experimental breast cancer vaccine, two skin biopsies, and three other vinegar-like injections that are so excruciating that patients say numbing cream does nothing. All of this comes over the next eight days in July, a carefully scripted routine of the breast cancer vaccine trial she has been enrolled in since April.

She knows the schedule by heart. This is her third time through and - should her advanced breast cancer stay in check - she will be back again in October, when the valets will greet her all over again.

It's a part-time job with an uncertain payoff.

Enrolling in one of Dr. Leisha Emens' vaccine trials is a far cry from getting a tetanus shot. It is a long-term commitment for a group of women with terminal cancer - 42 so far - who are otherwise making few long-term plans. They are the "almost dead," as one of the women puts it.

On four occasions over the course of six months, women like Steadman scramble to find friends to watch their children after school and cook a week's worth of meals so they can rest - or in the case of those who come from out of state, find a place to stay and a way to pay for it. Then there are the additional blood tests and medication required during off weeks, the regular bone and CT scans given to track progress, and the extra visits sometimes necessitated by unforeseen complications. They are paid nothing for this investment of time, save coupons for free parking, and must cover some of the insurance co-payments themselves.

The trade-off is a chance, slim as it may be for these pioneers, at making it longer than the one to two years that women with Stage IV cancer typically survive.

Emens believes she can train the body's immune system to attack cancer cells. For now it is an experimental treatment for the sickest of patients. Though it is a long shot, the research she is doing may lay the groundwork for a vaccine that could one day prevent breast cancer, which kills more than 40,000 U.S. women each year.

This is how new medicines are made. The vaccine has done wonders in some mice, leaving them cancer-free. Though by many accounts a promising therapy, it remains unknown whether the vaccine will prolong the lives of people, particularly the women with terminal breast cancer enrolled in Emens' early trials.

Cancer intrudes

Darby Steadman, 38, lives a fairly typical suburban life - married to the high school sweetheart she met on the homecoming court in Tampa, Fla., channeling the energy she once used in her career as a television executive into overseeing the busy schedules of 9-year-old Liam and 6-year-old Audrey, organizing games of Bunco and cookouts with neighbors, going to church on Sundays. Cancer, though, keeps interfering.

In 2004, she was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, a noninvasive cancer considered unlikely to spread. Her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer a decade earlier, so Steadman made a radical choice. She had both breasts removed, even though the cancer was in only one. By choosing this surgery, she was told, the risk that the cancer would come back was less than 1 percent.

But the cancer returned last fall. It showed up in her lymph nodes and the vertabrae in her neck. She could tell right away that something was wrong, but she hadn't lived in Maryland long and didn't have an oncologist. When she finally found a doctor, she could read the bad news in the pity betrayed by the woman's eyes.

But then life got in the way of the mourning. "There's not a lot you can do," she says. "The kids still have to be fed, and the laundry still needs to be done."

In April, on her daughter's sixth birthday, Steadman got her first vaccine. Three months later, she has returned for her third round. In the intervening weeks, she has felt the cancer in her lymph nodes shrinking to the touch, the cancer in her spine causing less pain. She arrived at Hopkins upbeat on this July morning, despite the physical rigors she knew vaccine week would bring.

On Monday, she gets a low dose of cyclophosphamide, a chemotherapy agent. It is just enough to go after something called regulatory T-cells, which suppress the immune system. Removing the influence of regulatory T-cells should in turn allow the vaccine to stimulate the body's killer T-cells. Killer T-cells are a type of white blood cell that play a large role in the immune system, identifying, attacking and destroying the unfamiliar.

Vaccination day

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