Wellmont Cancer Institute Clinical Trial Program Provides Strength And Hope To Patients

The Wellmont Cancer Institute brings strength and hope to patients by empowering them to work with physicians to set the standard for cancer prevention and treatment in the nation.

Through the clinical trial program, residents such as Cathy Johnston of Kingsport and Wana Henry of Church Hill are giving an optimist outlook to others facing a potential cancer diagnosis. The two women, both breast cancer survivors, have participated in treatments that, in some cases, have produced groundbreaking results in the fight against cancer.

Dr. Sue Prill, a board-certified oncologist with Wellmont Medical Associates, said clinical trials performed at the cancer institute provide a tremendous community benefit.

"They give our program access to potentially helpful drugs while they are in development and otherwise might not be available," Dr. Prill said. "Some of these medications have resulted in major advancements in oncology care, particularly with breast cancer.

"Before we started performing clinical trials in our region, patients had to travel to places such as Duke University or Vanderbilt University for this beneficial program. But now, patients can participate in trials close to home, where the family support structure is readily available."

Clinical trials started at Holston Valley Medical Center in the early 1980s, initially advocated by Drs. Ruth Young and Ervin Hire. Oncologists and researchers noted the results and side effects of the treatments administered to participants, all with the goal of preventing cancer or developing the most effective treatments.

The information recorded at Holston Valley was shared with physicians throughout the nation, which appealed to Johnston.

"And if it helped other people, that would be even better," she said.

The cancer institute has since expanded its robust clinical trials program to Bristol, Johnson City and Norton, Va. The cancer institute is actively recruiting patients in about 50 clinical trials and continues to monitor patients in about 150 trials that began as early as 1984. The patients include those with breast, lung, colon, brain, kidney and bladder cancer.

Tangible results of the cancer institute's clinical trials have included gaining acceptance for use of the drug Herceptin for cancer treatment. Data gathered locally helped lead to that drug's approval, said Teresa Bailey, the cancer institute's clinical trials coordinator.

Information gathered in the clinical trials can also suggest preventive measures. Wellmont's longtime participation in trials has shown the benefit of giving women at high risk of breast cancer the drug tamoxifen. Bailey said information gathered in the cancer institute's clinical trials changed how that drug is prescribed nationally.

Two local women can share the value of participating in a trial.

Johnston had never had a mammogram. She had no family history of cancer and her physician had told her that at her age, her early 40s, she did not need one.

Then in late 1995, someone she knew at work had a mammogram that detected breast cancer and Johnston thought, "I need to go."

It was a good choice because her caregivers found something amiss in one of her breasts. Initially, they classified it as calcification, but by December her breast started hurting and swelled. The physician tried a fine needle aspiration, and the results came back suspicious.

Physicians gave Johnston some choices, and she decided to undergo a mastectomy at Holston Valley. That led to a diagnosis of stage three cancer, and she received chemotherapy as part of her treatment regimen.

At this point she agreed to have her treatment and its results documented in the cancer institute's clinical trials program.

Physicians at Holston Valley determined she needed further treatment, including procedures not offered locally. So she went to the Bowman-Gray Clinic in Winston-Salem, N.C., with which Holston Valley had a clinical trial affiliation.

Her treatments were bone marrow and stem cell transplants. She returned to Holston Valley and started radiation therapy.

Johnston is glad she participated in a clinical trial and is thankful for her compassionate caregivers at Holston Valley who helped her through the healing process.

"Staff members at the cancer institute still call me once a year to see how I feel, and they were extremely supportive when I was first diagnosed," she said. "They are a good bunch of people."

Henry was 60 years old when her breast cancer was detected in a mammogram in 2001. After her mastectomy she decided to participate in a clinical trial for an understandable reason.

"I have a daughter and a granddaughter and felt it was worth doing if it would benefit them or others in any way," Henry said.

Among the treatments documented during Henry's trial were five years of taking tamoxifen and Arimidex, another innovative medication in the fight against breast cancer.

"I'm 12 years out now," she said, but she remembers her doctor's advice. "Don't say you're cured. Just say you're in remission." Her advice to other women who learn they have breast cancer is to be optimistic. "It's not automatically a death sentence."

Dr. Prill said Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia benefited greatly when her former Bristol-based practice, which was working on clinical trials, joined Wellmont Health System. That enabled two separate programs to become one, giving patients of her former practice and those who were already receiving care from Wellmont access to each other's trials.

"Wellmont is 100 percent supportive of the clinical trials program," Dr. Prill said. "That says a lot about the quality of care and our commitment to give patients strength for today and hope for tomorrow."

Cancer patients are screened before physicians and other staff members select appropriate candidates for clinical trials. When the cancer institute approaches patients to ask whether they want to participate in a trial, many decline.

In fact, only about 3 percent nationally agree to participate in clinical trials, Bailey said. Among Wellmont Cancer Institute patients at its Kingsport and Bristol facilities, that number is better - closer to 10 percent.

Considering the potential long-range positive impact, Bailey encourages patients to give a clinic trial serious consideration.

"The benefits of participating in a trial are even more far-reaching, giving local physicians valuable information that can be shared with their colleagues across the country and leaving a legacy that will benefit patients who might face a cancer diagnosis in the future," Bailey said. "It's an opportunity to make a tremendous difference in our region's quality of life."