When Virginia Mortenson of Green Bay was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, she didn’t believe it.
“I have always had dense breast tissue, and I’ve had to go beyond mammograms a couple times for screenings and it never amounted to anything,” she recalls.
But this time a regular screening, a second mammogram and biopsy confirmed – Virginia faced stage 1 breast cancer.
“That was a bit of a shocker,” Virginia recalls. “It all went very quickly – I scheduled an appointment with a surgeon, she and her team were wonderful in explaining what was happening – it’s a lot to take in.”
After completing surgery and radiation, Virginia’s doctor recommended a test that examines the tumor to determine the likelihood of recurrence. “I came out right in the middle of that test,” Virginia said.
Chemotherapy has been a treatment standard for her type of breast cancer, but because she tested “in the middle” for recurrence, Virginia decided to participate in a clinical research trial.
The trial involved postmenopausal women with estrogen-positive breast cancer, which is what she had. Some women were given the traditional chemotherapy, but others were given estrogen-inhibiting medication to try and prevent the cancer from coming back. Virginia ended up getting the inhibitor drugs, and stayed on them for five years.
“I avoided chemotherapy. I don’t think it would have been any more effective than the inhibitor,” Virginia said.
Providing patients with better access to top clinical trials is a key goal of Aurora Health Care’s involvement with the National Cancer Institute Community Oncology Research Program, or NCORP. Aurora Health Care was recently awarded $3.8 million in federal funding over five years to improve cancer research and expand patient access to clinical trials in Wisconsin.
“Currently, there is a gap between when treatments or techniques are known to be successful and when they are incorporated as a standard of care,” said Thomas Saphner, MD, FACP, one of the key investigators spearheading the NCORP initiative. “A primary goal of our work on this project will be to narrow this gap.”
Virginia is living proof. The inhibitor she began taking in 2007 is now more readily available and even in a generic form. She also offered a blood sample last year that experts can analyze in case her cancer does return. Virginia, however, is optimistic.
“It’s been seven years since the breast cancer. I have no regrets,” she said. “I entered the clinical trial so in the future; women in my position would have more clear-cut data on which to make a treatment decision. Maybe chemotherapy isn’t always the answer.”