You need to figure out if you have something to live for … then start living. —Michelle Thompson
SOUTH JORDAN — Michelle Thompson is knee-deep into stage 4 cancer, but you wouldn't know it from looking at her.
Her silver-blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes are just as bright as they were prior to the presumably devastating diagnosis in early 2013.
"I have this cancer that is supposed to mean a long, slow decline, but, all of a sudden, I'm feeling better," Thompson said. "I am reversing a no-reversible trend, and that sort of thing makes you happy."
It helps, too, that she's pushing herself to be better every day, including employing a newly FDA-approved procedure that eliminates her most hearty source of pain — tumors that dot her radiation-plagued broken spine.
Approximately 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer every year, and two-thirds will develop bone metastasis, with the spine being the most common site, according to the International Journal of Surgical Oncology. The painful spine tumors are particularly prevalent in breast cancer patients, like Thompson.
Prior to September, when Spinal Tumor Ablation using Radio-frequency, referred to as STAR, was approved by the FDA, the pain could be treated less than ideally with morphine, or palliative radiotherapy requiring multiple radiation treatments at a hospital.
"What we're now doing in the image-guided tumor ablation has been done all over the body, in the liver, kidneys, pancreas and breast for decades," said Dr. James Carlisle, an interventional oncologist at Murray's Utah Vascular Clinic. He said he performs the outpatient procedure once every couple of days.
"People are living longer with cancer because of great other treatments available for cancer," he said. While the STAR procedure isn't a cure, he said it can improve a person's quality of life, getting their pain to a more manageable level.
Thompson, 52, is not taking any narcotic pain medications and doctors can't really give her an accurate prognosis due to all of the nontraditional treatment methods she has employed. About a year ago, however, she was told she had a 20 percent chance of surviving five years.
"Your fate is in God's hands, not the doctors'," she said, joking that maybe she'd die sooner if she just gave up.
But she's not giving up, not in the slightest.
"You need to figure out if you have something to live for then start living," Thompson said, adding that she's "still got stuff to do."
"I figure, get this stuff out of my bones and then go back to work," she said.
Getting the cancer out of her bones isn't easy, and doctors, Thompson said, haven't exactly given her a road map. But she believes that if she can give her body what it needs to heal itself and eliminate everything it doesn't, she can live longer and be happier and healthier doing it.
"My cancer is further along, so it might take longer," Thompson said. "But our bodies are designed to heal themselves. We just need to give it the tools to do that."
As a former pharmaceutical sales representative, Thompson dealt with oncological drugs and spent much time researching cancer to stay current in the industry. She said she learned a lot about how other countries' medical communities respond to the disease and figured she'd have to head to Asia if she was ever diagnosed.
But when the time came, she was far too weak to pack her bags or to board a plane.
At one point, Thompson said, she was so weak that she'd put her dirty laundry in a pillowcase and kick it down the hallway to the washing machine, to be cleaned a few pieces at a time. A gallon of milk had to be separated into two pitchers so she could handle pouring it. And the most she could lift was a 15-pound bag of cat food.
Having waded through various possible diagnoses prior to the confirmation that it is cancer, Thompson received few options for treatment along the way.
Thinking she didn't have a choice to get rid of the debilitating tumors throughout her body, she succumbed to months of physically and emotionally exhausting radiation, but her resulting condition led her to think, "Maybe we are treating cancer the wrong way (in America),'" she said.
"Oncology is like the Wild West. Cancer is a disease that is not well understood, and I understand how much is not known about it," Thompson said. "(Doctors) are hoping you're the patient who has the best outcome, but they don't really know."
For someone who was previously physically active, the post-radiation body wasn't cutting it. And on top of the residual pain, Thompson learned that radiation not only wiped out her healing white blood cells, but left her with weakened bones.
STAR, developed by San Jose-based medical device company DFINE, has helped Thompson regain core strength, as her back is more able to straighten without pain. It's enough of an improvement that, even with stage four cancer, she is riding a bike and no longer using the shopping cart she would lean on to get around.
"I've always been a type-A overachiever," she said. "I didn't feel like I was done with the stuff I wanted to do before I die."
Thompson underwent her second STAR procedure at the Utah Vascular Clinic on Friday. Within hours, she was already feeling better.
Through three malleable probes inserted into vertebrae in Thompson's back, Carlisle heated tumors to the point of elimination and then filled the space with cement that solidifies quickly, providing stability to the spine.
Worldwide, DFINE has treated 150 patients with the new procedure, 95 percent of whom report experiencing pain relief, according to the company's website. Thompson is the first person to be treated at the Utah clinic and her procedure was accompanied by a DFINE clinical specialist, as the technology is still relatively new.
The minimally invasive, image-guided cancer therapy, Carlisle said, "is revolutionary."
"The ability to articulate and bend a needle is something I've never seen before," he said. "The robustness within the system to make a curve within a bone is absolutely remarkable."
Metastases may show up again after others have been ablated, as radiation treatment for cancer can weaken the bones and cancers remain in the body. Carlisle said that as long as they're symptomatic and causing problems, they can be ablated, but "it isn't necessary if pain medication takes care of it."
And while Thompson is not the typical patient, given her background in pharmaceuticals and her "phenomenal energy and enthusiasm," Carlisle said, she is the type that "can influence the outcome for other patients."
"When a patient is changed by something in medicine and they become an advocate, they move the ball down the field in a way that an individual physician or group of physicians just can't do," he said. "Michelle is someone like that. She is really changing things for future patients."
Thompson is a participant in a STAR clinical trial at the clinic, but she is responsible for the cost of her surgeries there. When she reached her lifetime radiation limit, she had to find other options to treat her pain, and ultimately, her cancer.
"I have to work on me," she said, adding that she has family histories to write.
For now, though, Thompson is beating the odds and she's loving it.
And, frankly, so are her pets — a 100-pound Akbash dog and what has grown from one to five cats. She is more able to get outside with them. She's exercising more. She's taking care of herself — in more ways than one.