Clinical trials participant hopes to help future cancer patients.

To Help Someone Else 

During a breast self-exam, Wanda Blackburn detected a lump. She wasn’t shocked or afraid, her heart didn’t skip a beat and she didn’t cry. There was no strong family history of breast cancer and Blackburn felt okay.

She went on about her life without giving it much thought until she realized that the lump was growing. “I knew something was wrong,” Blackburn says. After a mammogram confirmed that the lump had grown to five centimeters in size, Blackburn called her doctor. When asked where she would like to go for follow-up, Blackburn remembered that a family member had recently received excellent treatment at Thompson Cancer Survival Center. At Thompson, leading cancer specialists use the most advanced technologies to achieve breakthrough successes in treating many types of cancer. “They asked me where I wanted to go,” Blackburn says, “and I just said ‘Thompson.’”

Receiving the diagnosis

An ultrasound and subsequent biopsy revealed a malignancy. Blackburn remembers being frightened when she first heard the results of her pathology report. Out of 17 lymph nodes taken, nine tested positive for cancer.

Thompson Cancer Survival Center uses a multidisciplinary approach to treatment and patient care, so Blackburn was able to speak with all the medical professionals who would be directly involved in her case. This helped set her mind at ease and with their input and guidance, Blackburn decided to have a double mastectomy.“I didn’t want to have to worry about it coming back,” Blackburn explains. “Every time I did a breast exam I would be freaking out — every little thing I felt would scare me to death. I didn’t want to go through that again.”

Before her surgery, Blackburn was approached about the possibility of taking part in a clinical trial. It was an opportunity she didn’t want to pass up. Thompson Cancer Survival Center was the first to bring cancer clinical trials to East Tennessee more than 25 years ago. Clinical trials are research studies designed to find better ways to treat different types of cancer. Thompson participates in trials of new medicines and treatments that may become the standard for cancer care in the future.

“They gave me all the paperwork, I studied it over, and I decided I wanted to do it,” Blackburn says.

Jennifer England, clinical trials manager, says Thompson’s program is valuable and participants like Blackburn have a chance to change the future of cancer treatment.“Participating in a clinical trial gives researchers access to tumor tissue and blood samples, which allow them to learn more about cancer,” she explains. England says clinical trial participants help researchers learn “what genetic predispositions people may have to developing cancer, what characteristics make treatments work for some patients and not others, and what kinds of new targets we can find in a tumor to be able to develop new drugs to fight against cancer.”

Treatment and testing 

While Blackburn wasn’t selected to test a new drug, she was given the option of continuing in the clinical trial program. She was studied as she took two chemotherapy doses and two antibodies once every three weeks for a total of six treatments. Then surgery was performed by Paul S. Dudrick, MD, at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center

“I had a great surgeon who took the time to answer all my questions,” Blackburn says. “No matter how long I sat there and asked him, he would and answer me.” Her treatment concluded with radiation therapy. Blackburn was happy to be part of the study group using these traditional treatment methods. “I thought it might help someone else later,” she says.

Blackburn is cancer free and is back at work and doing well. She praises her husband and daughter who supported her through the process, and she is grateful to Dr. Dudrick and the medical team at Thompson Cancer Survival Center for their professional and compassionate care.

She wants to use her story to help other women. “If I hadn’t waited as long as I did, the lump in my breast wouldn’t have gotten as big as it did, and it wouldn’t have gotten into my lymph nodes.” Blackburn says. “If you find a lump in your breast, definitely go and get it checked out.”

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