“Recently I came across the definition of the word Courage. It is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty or pain. You have to have courage just to walk through these doors and hear your diagnosis,” said Sandra Lymburner, 58-year-old Ann Arbor resident, of her experience facing breast cancer. “Cancer can make you feel overwhelmed and alone. But together with your cancer team here at St. Joe’s you find the courage. There is strength in knowing you will receive the best cancer care possible.”
While Sandy celebrates five years cancer-free this past September, her journey of braving a new treatment path will have an ongoing impact on others. She’s quick to credit the cancer care and research team at St. Joe’s Robert H. and Judy Dow Alexander Cancer Center.
Weeks after being diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in the right breast and lobular cancer in the left, Sandy underwent a double mastectomy in September 2014. Her chemotherapy port was placed the next month, fully expecting it was the next course of treatment.
But on the day of Sandy’s first scheduled chemotherapy session, Dr. Philip Stella, medical director of oncology at Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, suggested she might be able to bypass chemotherapy altogether.
“He came into the room with a big smile on his face,” Sandy described. Dr. Stella had sent in her breast tumor samples for molecular testing. Sandy had some of the lowest cancer recurrence risk scores he had seen, making her a good candidate for the groundbreaking Trial Assigning Individualized Options for Treatment (Rx), or TAILORx trial. Sandy received a score of 10 and 7 (on a scale of 100), and was randomly selected to receive hormone therapy alone.
Rather than receiving infusion chemo treatments, Sandy chose to participate in the clinical trial, which includes a treatment regimen of medications to block the production of hormones and reduce her risks of the breast cancer recurring.
She also followed her cancer team’s recommendations for radiation therapy – to tackle the microscopic cells. But avoiding chemotherapy and its drastic side effects was a huge morale booster for Sandy, who began journaling and running every day.
In 2016, Sandy completed a half-marathon, and, in 2018, to mark four years of being cancer-free, she ran her third half-marathon in Chicago on Sept. 23.
At the Robert H. and Judy Dow Alexander Cancer Center Dedication and Blessing in December 2018, Sandy shared her experience with our community and donors as a speaker at the event, “The clinical trial allowed me to walk out of the cancer center that day without requiring chemo. Every time I tell the story, I recall the moment I looked back at the chairs in the infusion clinic. I was on the other side. I got to go home. My good fortune was due to the outstanding staff in the Oncology and Research Departments at St. Joe’s and Dr. Stella.
At that time I didn’t realize St. Joe’s is recognized as one of the nation’s best National Cancer Institute funded community research programs. They have 100 trials open to enrollment at any given time. These studies offer investigational treatments for a wide variety of cancers, symptom management, and cancer prevention.”
Sandy went on to explain, “The exceptional care I received at St. Joe’s has been incredible and is the main reason I decided to become an Experience Advisor.” As such, Sandy was closely involved in the Cancer Center redesign and renovation project and found it enlightening and gratifying to have another unique opportunity to shape the care of those following a similar path.
Closing her remarks at the Dedication, Sandy shared these powerful words, “Society has labeled me a cancer survivor. That term doesn’t really resonate with me. I like to think of myself as a resilient fighter… Someone that didn’t know how strong she was until being strong was the only choice she had. Thanks to my family and the staff at St. Joe’s we embraced the unknown together and I have celebrated almost five years of being cancer free.”
TAILORx trial shows no need for chemotherapy for most women with early breast cancer
The TAILORx trial, launched in 2006 and supported by the National Cancer Institute, analyzed breast tumors using the Oncotype DX Breast Recurrence Score and assigned a cancer recurrence risk score to each individual. Based on those scores, the trial randomly assigned participants to hormone therapy alone, or a combination of hormone therapy and chemotherapy.
Forty St. Joe’s patients participated in the trial.
In June, the National Cancer Institute said new findings from the TAILORx trial show no benefit from chemotherapy for most women with early breast cancer. Researchers hope the new data will help inform treatment decisions for many women with early-stage breast cancer, especially for those deemed to have an intermediate risk of recurrence.
To learn more about St. Joe’s Cancer Care and National Cancer Institute Community Oncology Research Program, visit: stjoesannarbor.org/cancer
To make a gift to St. Joe’s Ann Arbor “Life is Remarkable” Campaign
Cancer Care Innovation Endowment Fund today, visit: giving.stjoeshealth.org/ann-arbor
Or to learn more about how you can support this important effort, contact:
Katie Elliott at Katie.Elliott@stjoeshealth.org or 734-712-3919
Karen Campbell at Karen.Campbell@stjoeshealth.org or 734-712-2890
Melissa Sheppard at Melissa.Sheppard@stjoeshealth.org or 734-712-4079
(Source: “Gift of Health” Fall 2019)