SALT LAKE CITY — Megan Curran is done with cancer treatment, hopefully forever.
"It's like making it to the end of a marathon," the 45-year-old single mom said. She has a very rare type of breast cancer for which doctors can't give her a clean bill of health.
"They just kind of cross their fingers that it won't come back," Curran said.
And because her cancer is so rare and survival rates are lower than with typical breast cancers, Curran was eager to try anything.
Doctors recommended a vigorous treatment regimen, including a mastectomy, five months of chemotherapy and then 25 rounds of radiation. To help with ongoing research and get some of the costs covered, she willingly enrolled in a clinical trial where she would get access to investigational treatment, but extra attention from clinicians along the way (they'll track her health for the next 10 years).
The medication she received might also possibly prevent reoccurrence of the disease — at least that's the idea.
"I just wanted to do anything to beat the odds," Curran said. "I'm a single mom of three kids. I have to do anything I can to fight for my family."
Huntsman Cancer Institute is involved in more than 200 active clinical trials, most of which are conducted in cooperation with cancer facilities across the United States. The trials gather patients from various backgrounds to further medical research on new treatment regimens, but also innovative ways of managing side effects and methods to prevent or diagnose cancer earlier, said Huntsman oncologist Dr. Anna Beck.
"If it wasn't for clinical trials, our ability to treat cancer patients and push them toward a better quality of life would be pretty minimal," Beck, who serves as the director of Supportive Oncology and Survivorship at the hospital, said. "They help us push the envelope when it comes to cancer treatment."
Until recently, clinical trials were only offered to patients at the main hospital and research center in Salt Lake City. Beck said the tests often require significant support staff to effectively carry out, which hasn't been easy to spread to newly opened Huntsman facilities in South Jordan and in Farmington.
But they found a way.
"We're scaling it up all the time," Beck said, adding that clinical trials help accomplish the mission of Huntsman Cancer Institute — to help eradicate cancer.
"Part of that is done in the laboratory with scientists, and part of that is done with patients, to whom we can offer new and innovative therapies," she said.
And while some patients are more comfortable than others being involved in something that is considered investigational or uncertain, Beck said, expanding to more locations gives more patients the opportunity to be involved, as patients involved in clinical trials often have to attend more appointments to be more closely monitored throughout the trial.
The tradeoff, Beck said, is that they often get more tightly scripted, better quality care and get to know the clinicians better.
Curran had only just moved to Utah when she was diagnosed with the rare and aggressive cancer, but she knew she wanted to go to Huntsman Cancer Institute for treatment. She was able to get most of her chemo and radiation at the South Jordan facility, which is much closer and more convenient to her home in Lehi.
She says the staff at the small clinic have all but become some of her best friends.
"It's a very scary diagnosis," Beck, a breast cancer survivor herself, said, adding that some people don't want to take a risk with their treatment.
She recalls that while she was receiving treatment 10 years ago, there were questions about different chemotherapy regimens. Since then, they've been tested and one has been determined better than the other, allowing doctors to better treat that type of cancer.
"I'm not a scientist. I'm a clinician. Studies help us to know the right answers," Beck said, commending the many patients and families who choose to enroll. "A lot of people who get this disease are very vested in either a cure or better treatments."
Sometimes, she said, clinical trials end up being the only hope for patients with advanced or complicated and challenging cases.
Of course, Curran (and anyone who knows and loves her) wants the trial regimen along with the medication she's using to work, but she's also had to face the reality of her condition.
She's prepared a will and named guardians for her children, something she said was very hard to think about.
"I have to stay positive," she said. "They worry that I'll die. I'm very open with them about what I'm doing — I tell them it's serious, but Mom is going to give everything I can."
Curran, who has lost all her hair and is covered head-to-toe with radiation burns, has felt tremendous support from family, fellow church members and friends as she's endured one of the hardest things in her life. She values the comfort and care she and her family have received and credits her LDS faith for helping her make it through each day.
"People pop up out of nowhere to help," she said, adding that complete strangers have helped to pay her rent when she wasn't able to work.
And while her cancer type has a fairly low survival rate, the support and optimism buoys her.
"I have to still live life," Curran said. "I can't let this wear me down and make me sad and let it take over in a way that it seriously could."Comment on this story
Being part of an ongoing clinical trial, she said, only comforts her more, knowing that she has an "extra group of people who are even more concerned" about her.
"I know they're looking out for my best interest and they want me to survive," Curran said. "I don't feel like a number. I feel like I'm part of this team of people who are wanting to support me in my longevity in life."
For information about clinical trials at Huntsman Cancer Institute, visit healthcare.utah.edu/huntsmancancerinstitute/clinical-trials.