A Cancer Story: “If I can help someone else, I’m going to do it.”

Kelly Ford (center) stands with Memorial Medical Center cancer research nurses Holly Thomas, RN, OCN, and Karen Graber, RN, OCN.

In the late fall of 2009, Kelly Ford’s cancer journey began with an inexplicable pain in her rib.

After several doctor visits, an X-ray eventually  determined it was fractured, but how she injured the rib was a mystery to Kelly, a 40-something married mother of two from Springfield.

The puzzle pieces fell together in February 2010, when Kelly was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. By then, she was so weak from pain, she couldn’t get out of bed. Scans showed she had cancerous tumors in several spots throughout her skeletal structure; she also had a 4×6-centimeter tumor in her breast.

“I was in huge shock,” she said. “I remember just being really scared and confused.”

Kelly selected Karen Hoelzer, MD, with Springfield Clinic as her oncologist. At their first meeting, Dr. Hoelzer mentioned the different research studies and drug trials available to breast cancer patients.

“She told me, ‘I can treat this. I can’t cure you, but I can help you manage this,’” Kelly said. “Prior to that, I had no hope. I needed that in my life.”

After hearing her options and studying them with her husband, Bob, she decided to enroll in a blind study that evaluated  a combination drug therapy that included the chemotherapy drug Avastin, an injection that put her into post-menopause, a bone treatment, hormone pills — and a positive attitude.

“I thought, if I can help someone else, I’m going to do it,” she said. “Even if it can’t cure me, maybe it can help someone else down the road. … I made up my mind that I was going to make the best of this.”

Kelly’s research trial was part of the Central Illinois Community Clinical Oncology Program (CICCOP), a joint initiative involving Memorial Medical Center and Decatur Memorial Hospital, which recently was awarded a grant totaling more than $1.25 million from the National Cancer Institute. This is the 26th year CICCOP has received funding, which helps bring research trials with innovative cancer treatments and new approaches to cancer prevention to patients living in 42 counties in central, southern and northeast Illinois at no cost to taxpayers.

About one-third of the funding goes to Memorial Medical Center to support research staff in their efforts to enroll patients like Kelly from oncology practices in Springfield. Up to 100 clinical trials related to cancer care are available through CICCOP for patients to receive investigational drugs and innovative cancer treatment.

“Clinical trials are considered the highest standard of care for cancer patients because they support the goal of discovering the most effective treatments. Reducing the burden of cancer and decreasing its death rate are important outcomes from cancer clinical research,” said Linda Jones, DNS, RN, AOCN, FACHE, administrator of Memorial Medical Center’s Regional Cancer Center.

Kelly worked closely with research nurses Holly Thomas, RN, OCN, and Karen Graber, RN, OCN, who provided a steady source of encouragement and information for her.

When she began her treatments, Kelly was unaware if she was receiving the Avastin drug, which works to stop blood flow to tumors to stunt their growth. The study since has been un-blinded, and she knows now that she was, and still is, receiving the drug.

She knew there could be side effects to her treatments, including joint pain, but the benefits — for her, at least — far outweighed them. An active person up until her diagnosis, Kelly slowly began to regain the ability to perform daily tasks at home.

“Finally, I started to get relief,” she said. “I was so excited. It felt so good once I was able to do things again; I just had to learn to pace myself. Those things that were taken away from me, slowly I was able to gain back.”

After participating in the trial for a period of time, Kelly’s scans showed her tumors were shrinking, and the cancer markers in her blood dropped into normal range. Doctors are pleased with her progress, and she is able to have a more positive outlook on her future.

“I just can’t express how different I feel,” she said. “Now, sometimes, I don’t even think about having cancer.”