Super ASK Patient: Marilou Shares Her Experience as a Young Woman with Advanced Cervical Cancer


 
Marilou Gougeon received a diagnosis of early stage cervical cancer in November of 2012. By 2015, her cancer had progressed to stage 4, and in 2016 she reached out to ASK Cancer Commons for guidance on what to do next. Here, she shares her unique perspective on cancer and how it has impacted her life, as well as her thoughts on the difficulty faced by patients as they navigate cancer treatment.

 

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

At 34 years old, when I was first diagnosed, I had a successful career in the Canadian federal government and a spouse with whom I wanted to have a biological child. Travelling abroad was at the center of our lives.

Now, I am 39 years old and I have incurable cervical cancer. I am not able to work anymore because of the treatment side effects, particularly chronic fatigue and anxiety. But I try to live the most normal life possible, within the limit of my “new normal” life.

My greatest passion is travelling. I have visited around 20 countries in five continents. I really feel that my heart is in Italy, and my soul in Japan. I am especially interested in almost everything related to Japan—the culture, people, craft, history, society, and more. I got married in a wonderful Japanese furisode (a style of kimono).

I always say that travelling is one of the therapies that has helped save my live. However, because of all the cancer treatments that I have received, I don’t have a lot of energy anymore, so I have adopted the “slow travel” concept and I really enjoy it.

Despite the diagnosis, I remain optimistic and I still have many dreams and plans for the future. And my greatest accomplishment would be to become the adoptive mom of a little angel from Vietnam. Because of my terminal status, we had to stop all our adoption plans, but we never know…

How were you first diagnosed with cervical cancer? Did you have any telltale signs or symptoms?

The first sign was that I had abnormal bleeding after sexual intercourse. I’d had normal Pap tests each year since my teenage years, but my most recent Pap test at the time did not detect my lesion; it was located too deeply in the endocervix.

At first, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the earliest stage, called “in situ,” caused by HPV 16. The gynecologist was convinced that a “simple” conization (surgery to remove a small amount of abnormal cervical tissue) would completely eliminate the small one-millimeter lesion, and that I would be cancer free. So at first, I was really not afraid or concerned. This little surgery is performed in a lot of women every day (my mother and sister-in-law have had it, and they both have been healthy for many years since).

How did your cancer progress, and what were your treatments?

In 2013, I received a radical trachelectomy, and in 2014 I received a radical hysterectomy, 35 rounds of external radiation, and six cisplatin treatments. In 2015, metastases were found on both of my lungs, and I was restaged to 4b. I received six carboplatin-taxol treatments from July to December of that year. In 2016, I had no evidence of disease (NED) until July, when a CT scan showed that a tiny nodule had been growing on my left lung. I contacted Cancer Commons in October of that year, just before receiving the results of the October scan. I wanted to receive professional advice to help me prepare a treatment plan, in case I needed to enter a clinical trial.

Marilou (middle) with her mom and aunt

How did you hear about Cancer Commons, and what were you hoping for when you reached out?

I heard about Cancer Commons while participating in a social media forum hosted by Inspire. One of the women on the forum had a good experience and suggested contacting Cancer Commons in order to receive professional guidance to navigate the complex world of clinical trials.

As a patient, I have encountered a lot of difficulties over the years. In general, oncologists don’t have time to keep themselves informed and really up to date about scientific developments, which now occur at a really fast pace. Also, oncologists are not well-informed about clinical trials being conducted at other cancer centers.

Given this situation, I understand that I should become my own advocate and become (and stay) well-informed about my illness and treatment possibilities. However, as a patient with no scientific background, I faced challenges: How could I be sure which drug molecules would be the best ones to try for my specific case, and which clinical trial should I choose? What are the latest scientific developments in cervical cancer?

Moreover, being French-Canadian, English is my second language, and it is sometimes difficult to truly understand the subtleties of some scientific articles.

These are some of the reasons why I decided to contact Cancer Commons. After having had a look at the website and the board of directors, I understood that Cancer Commons was serious and professional.

You received guidance from our chief scientist Emma Shtivelman. How has Emma helped you?

I always say that Emma was an angel that appeared in my life. Rapidly, I saw that her advice was professional and that her insights matched the latest publications, so I have developed very strong trust in her.

As a molecular and cellular biologist, she explained to me all the scientific facts that I didn’t understand. We discussed the latest publications about cervical cancer, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy. She helped me to determine which drug would be the best choice in my personal situation.

Moreover, what I appreciate the most about Emma is her human goodness and empathy. I have never felt I was just a case for her. She is really dedicated to the patient.

Also, knowing that Emma is there helps to relieve a lot of stress because patients often don’t have a lot of time with their oncologists, so a lot of questions are not always fully answered. With Emma, I know that I can reach her almost any time and she will have a professional answer to provide.

In a perfect world, I see Cancer Commons’ services as an integral part of a patient’s treatment plan. In every cancer center, patients should have access to a professional like Emma who can help them with those kinds of questions.

Where are you now in terms of treatment and prognosis?

Last spring, I was lucky to have the opportunity to receive stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT), which is a really precise radiotherapy, to treat the metastatic tumors on my lungs. My latest scan results were good; one tumor disappeared and the other ones are getting smaller. We will have more answers with my next scan in November. Except for some fatigue, the secondary side effects are nonexistent.

My oncologists really don’t know about my prognosis. It is really rare that a patient who is first diagnosed with “in situ” cervical cancer reaches a similar situation with distant metastasis. But if I consider the statistics, which predict about one year survival after metastasis, I have already beat them!

My next treatment will probably be through a clinical trial. Scientists know that with recurrent cervical cancer, traditional treatments stop working sooner or later. And doing too many chemotherapy treatments could diminish the chances of being accepted in some clinical trials, so I need to choose each treatment strategically.

How have you dealt with your side effects?

The major side effects for me are chronic fatigue and anxiety. I have been “lucky” since a lot of women who have received the same types of treatment have had more serious side effects; for example, bowel or bladder damage caused by radiation therapies. Luckily, that hasn’t happened in my case.

For anxiety, I have been treated by a wonderful psychologist and psychiatrist. Medication helps, but I also meditate and read literature about Buddhist philosophy. Strange to say but astrophysics and quantum physics theories make me think about my tiny place within the universe and help me to cope with my fear of death.

For chronic fatigue, I take medication used in the treatment of narcolepsy. It helps me to have a more “normal” afternoon. However, my energy level is still really low, so I need to adapt and plan my days as a result. Now, I appreciate every moment when I am doing an activity, and I try to sleep and rest a lot.

I have a completely different life compared to other people my age. I really think that with this kind of situation (major disease at a young age), adaptability is the key to keep a healthy mind.

Marilou with her husband

How else has cancer affected your life?

I enjoy every moment, at a slower pace. I have completely changed my lifestyle (no more “cult of being busy” and trying to meet society’s competitive standards). I place my family and my friends at the heart of my life. I try to develop more compassion—for others, but also toward myself. I have never been so close to my mother, and I have realized how good a person my husband is and how deeply I am in love with him. I have never been so happy!

You mentioned that you are involved in an online cervical cancer discussion forum. How has it helped you?

The Inspire forum has been a great resource in terms of sharing experiences with other cervical cancer patients. It is where I was first informed about the existence of clinical trials and Cancer Commons. I am also member of some open and closed Facebook groups (managed from the U.S., Canada, and Europe) for advanced cervical cancer patients.

I am looking into getting involved with an organization called Cervivor because they would like to promote clinical trials accessible to women with cervical cancer via their website. And I follow the top U.S. cancer centers and gynecological cancer organizations’ posts on social media.

On a daily basis, I read research results presented at international conferences, medical news, and the most recent scientific articles. Being involved in social media and reading a lot of scientific news has helped save my life; I am convinced of that.

What advice would you give to a woman who is newly diagnosed and is starting to consider various treatments, including clinical trials?

Over the years, I have spoken with a lot of cancer patients in Canada, Europe, and the U.S., and it seems that the same problems exist all over the world (for instance, knowledge and accessibility about new cancer treatments).

Cancer patients need to be involved in their own medical decisions. The time when doctors possessed the science and patients simply accepted that is now over. Today, I see oncologists as one source of information among many others (even if it is an important one). Additional information exists, it is available, and cancer patients need to understand that. And they need to understand that, even in a reputable cancer center, doctors are not all equal in terms of knowledge, competency, thinking out of the box, patient dedication, and more. Also, if needed, patients can look to other hospitals’ and cancer centers’ clinical trial options (inside or outside their city or province), in order to receive the best treatment.

Over the years, I have seen the worst and the better. Patients should never accept a negative answer or a decision they are not comfortable with. I have seen many cancer patients being told that there was nothing else that could be done for them with regular protocol treatments. However, those oncologists never mentioned clinical trial options. Only after patients have requested second and third opinions are they directed to a clinical trial, and these patients are still alive many months or years after their death sentence. Personally, I cannot accept or tolerate this difference between oncologists’ and cancer centers’ approach and vision.

People always mention that cancer is a battle. Personally, I don’t think that today it is the cancer itself which is a battle. The real battle is more the bureaucratic barriers, the costs of new cancer treatments, and obtaining the best treatment at the best time.

Is there anything else you’d like to spread the word about?

As a society, we need to begin a dialogue/debate about the cost of new molecular drugs. We also need to discuss the inequality in terms of treatment options between hospitals (a lot of statistics already exist on the topic of regional hospitals versus bigger cancer centers).

Patients need to be more informed about the real process behind clinical trials. We need to be informed of how hospitals, the government, and pharmaceutical companies collaborate, negotiate, and determine which treatments will be available where. We need to know why some centers only test some obscure molecules while other hospitals offer a wide variety of drug and clinical trial options. Patients also need to know which doctor or hospital is the best for their specific case. And, finally, in order to choose the best treatment center, patients need to be informed about hospitals’ strategies in terms of development, financing, and scientific research priorities.

Cancer Commons helps tremendously with this gap in knowledge, but much more work needs to be done to improve the system for patients.

***

Super Patients are cancer survivors who learned to be more engaged in their own care. Cancer Commons believes every patient can be a Super Patient or benefit from a Super Caregiver or Super Advocate. We hope these stories will provide inspiration and hope for your or your loved one’s own treatment journey.


Adding Radiation Treatments to Inoperable Lung Cancer Increases Survival by up to One Year

Excerpt:

“Patients with unresectable, or inoperable, lung cancer are often given a dismal prognosis, with low rates of survival beyond a few years. Researchers exploring combination therapies have recently discovered improved survival rates by up to one year when patients treated with a newly formulated chemotherapy regimen are also given radiation therapy.

“A group of patients with metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer (mNSCLC) who had already been enrolled in a clinical trial were given radiation therapy, in addition to their treatment with a novel chemotherapy formulation, mPEBev, which was designed for its immune-modulating and anti-angiogenic effects. The mPEBev regimen is composed of fractionated cisplatin, oral etoposide, and bevacizumab, a monoclonal antibody that inhibits blood vessel growth in the tumor. Treatments were administered metronomically, spaced out in the safest possible doses to reduce side-effects and toxicity.”

Go to full article.

If you’re wondering whether this story applies to your own cancer case or a loved one’s, we invite you to use our ASK Cancer Commons service.


Nintedanib Chemo Combo Shows Benefit in Frontline Mesothelioma

Excerpt:

“Treatment with nintedanib plus pemetrexed and cisplatin improved progression-free survival (PFS) in the frontline setting by 3.7 months for chemotherapy-naive patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM), according to data reported at the 2017 ASCO Annual Meeting.

“In the phase II trial, known as LUME-Meso, the median PFS was 9.4 months with the nintedanib combination versus 5.7 months with pemetrexed and cisplatin alone (HR, 0.54; 95% CI, 0.33-0.87; P = .010). The median overall survival (OS) was 18.3 months with nintedanib versus 14.2 months with chemotherapy alone; however, this finding was not statistically significant (HR, 0.77; 95% CI, 0.46-1.29; P = .319).”

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If you’re wondering whether this story applies to your own cancer case or a loved one’s, we invite you to use our ASK Cancer Commons service.


Addition of Bevacizumab Shows No Survival Advantage Over Cisplatin Pemetrexed Alone in Non-Squamous NSCLC

Excerpt:

“Preliminary data from the SAKK19/09 trial shows no overall survival difference between two cohorts of patients with non-squamous non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) receiving similar cisplatin pemetrexed-based regimens.

“The SAKK19/09 trial examined a total of 77 patients with EGFR wild type non-squamous NSCLC. Both cohorts received cisplatin pemetrexed in the frontline, while one cohort had the addition of bevacizumab. In an interview with Targeted Oncology, Oliver Gautschi, MD, Assistant Professor, University of Bern, President, SAKK Lung Cancer Group, discusses the lack of differences in overall survival, where the field is going as a whole, and why combination maintenance therapy is not better than a single agent.”

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Do you have questions about this story? Let us know in a comment below. If you’re wondering whether this story applies to your own cancer case or a loved one’s, we invite you to use our Ask Cancer Commons service.


Patients With EGFR Expressing NSCLC Benefit Most From Necitumumab Added to Chemotherapy

Excerpt:

“Patients with epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) expressing advanced squamous non-small-cell lung cancer benefit most from necitumumab added to gemcitabine and cisplatin chemotherapy, according to a subgroup analysis from the SQUIRE trial presented today at the European Lung Cancer Conference (ELCC) 2016 in Geneva, Switzerland.

“The randomised phase III SQUIRE trial demonstrated that the addition of necitumumab to gemcitabine and cisplatin chemotherapy improved overall survival in patients with stage IV squamous  by 1.6 months compared to chemotherapy alone. The current study analysed outcomes in the subgroup of patients with EGFR expressing tumours compared to those with no EGFRs.”

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Do you have questions about this story? Let us know in a comment below. If you’re wondering whether this story applies to your own cancer case or a loved one’s, we invite you to use our Ask Cancer Commons service.


New Promising Drugs for Small Cell Lung Cancer


Any type of advanced lung cancer is bad news, but a diagnosis of small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is a particularly grim one to receive. About 30 years have passed since any new treatments for SCLC were developed, and patients’ responses to standard chemotherapy with etoposide and cisplatin are short-lived. Hopefully, this will change soon.

We begin this post with the immune checkpoint inhibitors, a type of immunotherapy that is explored in seemingly every type of cancer, including SCLC. Reports from two clinical trials of these drugs were recently made available at two meetings on lung cancer treatment. Continue reading…


TS Expression Could Guide Treatment in Nonsquamous NSCLC

“The combination of pemetrexed and cisplatin was superior to gemcitabine and cisplatin only in those non-squamous non–small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients who were negative for the enzyme thymidylate synthase (TS), suggesting it could be used as a predictive marker to guide treatment.

“Previous research has shown that pemetrexed/cisplatin offers superior survival in nonsquamous NSCLC, while gemcitabine/cisplatin was better in squamous NSCLC. “A plausible mechanism for the histotype-dependent efficacy of pemetrexed-based chemotherapy can be explained by the presence of different levels of TS according to histologic types, with adenocarcinoma of lung cancer exhibiting a lower TS protein expression level than squamous cell carcinoma or neuroendocrine carcinoma,” wrote study authors led by Myung-Ju Ahn, MD, PhD, of Sungkyunkwan University School of Medicine in Seoul.

“TS is involved in de novo DNA synthesis, and inhibiting the enzyme leads to arrested cell proliferation; pemetrexed’s antitumor effects arise from inhibition of TS. The new study’s results were published online ahead of print in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.”


Addition of Necitumumab to First-Line Gemcitabine-Cisplatin Improves Overall Survival in Stage IV Squamous NSCLC

“In the phase III SQUIRE trial reported in The Lancet Oncology, Thatcher et al found that the addition of the second-generation epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) antibody necitumumab to first-line gemcitabine-cisplatin improved overall survival among patients with stage IV squamous non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

“In this open-label trial, 1,093 patients from 26 countries were randomly assigned between January 2010 and February 2012 to receive gemcitabine-cisplatin with (n = 545) or without (n = 548) necitumumab. Necitumumab 800 mg was given intravenously on days 1 and 8 of 3-week cycles and continued after the end of chemotherapy until disease progression or intolerable toxicity. Gemcitabine 1,250 mg/m² was given on days 1 and 8, and cisplatin 75 mg/m² was given on day 1 of 3-week cycles. Randomization was stratified by Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG) performance status and geographic region. The primary endpoint was overall survival in an intent-to-treat analysis.

“For the necitumumab and control groups, the median age was 62 years in both; 83% and 84% of patients were male; 84% and 83% were white; the geographic region was North America, Europe, or Australia for 87% in both South America, South Africa, or India for 6% in both, and Eastern Asia for 8% and 7%; Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG) performance status was 0 in 30% and 33%, 1 in 61% and 58%, and 2 in 9% in both; and 55% in both had metastatic disease involving more than two organ systems.”


Nedaplatin plus Docetaxel 'New Standard of Treatment' for Advanced Squamous Lung Carcinoma

“Nedaplatin plus docetaxel conferred significantly improved OS rates compared with cisplatin plus docetaxel in patients with advanced or relapsed squamous cell lung carcinoma, according to the results of a phase 3 study presented at the ASCO Annual Meeting.

“ ‘Limited progress has been made for the treatment of advanced squamous cell lung cancer compared with non-squamous non–small cell lung cancer,’ Takehito Shukuya, MD, of the department of respiratory medicine at Juntendo University in Tokyo, said during a presentation. ‘Cisplatin plus docetaxel is the current standard of care in patients with advanced squamous cell lung cancer.’ “

“Nedaplatin (Aqupla, Shionogi Co) is a second-generation platinum compound that produces a reduced rate of certain adverse events — including nausea, vomiting and nephrotoxicity — compared with cisplatin. A previous phase 2 study of nedaplatin plus docetaxel demonstrated encouraging outcomes with acceptable toxicity for patients with advanced squamous cell lung carcinoma, according to study background.”