Dorothy Bolyard credits divine intervention for the rare moment of klutziness that changed her life. An unexpected collision with a doorway at home led Bolyard to discover a lump in her breast, which turned out to be cancerous.
Bolyard’s doctor referred her to the WVU Cancer Institute, where she participated in a clinical research trial – one of hundreds conducted with support from the Norma Mae Huggins Cancer Research Endowment Fund – that reduced her treatment time and offered insight to benefit future patients.
“I thought it could help other people and then possibly help myself, too,” Bolyard said of the trial. “The knowledge that they gain from it helps with continued research, and I think that’s a good thing.”
WVU Men’s Basketball Coach Bob Huggins launched the endowment fund after his mother, Norma Mae Huggins, lost her battle with colon cancer in 2003. To date, the fund has raised about $5 million to support clinical research trials for cancer patients in West Virginia. But, to the patients and physicians impacted by those funds, their value is priceless.
Advancing the standard of care
Clinical trials offer opportunities for patients and health care providers to participate in cutting-edge research aimed at advancing the standard of care. Continued research ultimately leads to better long-term patient outcomes, particularly in states like West Virginia. Studies show that cancer patients who live in rural areas often have lower survival rates – except when they are involved in clinical trials. WVU Medicine’s network of healthcare facilities expands access to innovative treatment options throughout the state.
“Clinical trials at WVU can be anything from early stage, first-time-in-humans studies to later-stage registries where we’re looking at long-term survival or long-term benefit of a drug for our patients,” Anne Schnatterly, director of the WVU Cancer Institute’s Clinical Research Unit, said.
Participation in clinical research trials ensures that WVU providers stay up to date on the latest advances in cancer care. The standard treatments available to cancer patients today were adopted by clinicians nationwide after research trials demonstrated their effectiveness.
The opportunity to further the science behind cancer treatment also helps WVU to attract and retain top-quality practitioners. Faculty members at WVU have had their work featured in journals that influence medical practice and continued research far beyond West Virginia’s borders. Cancer care is constantly evolving as ongoing studies identify newer, better ways to treat different varieties of the disease.
For instance, when Norma Mae Huggins was diagnosed, there were only a few drugs available to treat colon cancer. Today, there are more than a dozen. Those drugs were validated through clinical trials, including some conducted at WVU.
“As a clinician who participates in clinical trials, our first and foremost goal is that we do the best for our patients,” said Dr. Abraham Kanate, who treats patients with cancers that originate in the cells of blood-forming tissue, including leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. “There is nothing to beat the feeling when you actually enroll a patient in a clinical trial and the newer treatment has actually worked better than what you would have otherwise offered them.”
Money raised through the Norma Mae Huggins Cancer Research Endowment Fund provides the necessary tools and personnel to expedite and streamline clinical trials at the WVU Cancer Institute. Among those tools is OnCore, an online system that supports clinical trials by storing patient data, facilitating communication among providers and more.
The Clinical Research Unit employs 25 staffers who coordinate 214 active clinical trials spanning all types of cancer. Of those, patients are actively being recruited for 107 trials. Officials are working to expand clinical trials by enrolling more patients at regional WVU Medicine sites, exploring new types of trials and pursuing collaborative opportunities, among other efforts.
To date, more than 4,100 patients have participated in 879 clinical trials offered through the WVU Cancer Institute. Though only 3-5% of patients participate in clinical trials nationwide, WVU has boosted its participation rate slightly higher thanks to a research-focused culture that emphasizes the importance of clinical trials in advancing cancer care.
“Patients are really unselfish here,” said Dr. Hannah Hazard-Jenkins, a breast cancer surgeon who serves as director of clinical services at the WVU Cancer Institute’s Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center.“It’s really quite astounding. Even if you approach somebody and say, ‘I know this isn’t going to directly impact you, but you may impact the next generation, or it may impact somebody five or 10 years from now,’ there are not many people who say no.”
Seeking a cure
Linda Carleo is among those who said yes. After previously conquering breast cancer, she was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes and started chemotherapy at United Hospital Center in Bridgeport. When she refused to continue because the treatment made her severely sick, she came to the WVU Cancer Institute seeking an alternative to chemo with the potential to save her life.
“I was scared to death,” Carleo said. “I’m in the fourth stage, and that’s it. It’s over after that. But I’m a fighter. I’m a survivor, and I’m not going to let anybody tell me that I’m going to die. Because I’m not.”
Carleo’s cancer is improving since starting a series of infusions in Morgantown. Prior to each treatment, she receives two shots in her thigh to strengthen her immune system. Though she suffers from pain in her arm and breast, she has experienced none of the side effects that made chemotherapy so debilitating.
“I’m real pleased with this, very pleased,” Carleo said. “And I like the idea of helping people. If I can help people, I would like very much to do that, so they’ll know in advance what it’s like.”
Bolyard’s clinical trial involved treating her exposed tissue with radiation during lumpectomy surgery, reducing her post-operation radiation treatments by five days. Now cancer-free, she finds herself more compassionate toward others suffering from illness and says she is grateful for the fateful accident that launched her cancer journey.
“I just knew God had his hand upon me all along,” Bolyard said. “I knew he was with me.”
Clinical trials like those involving Carleo and Bolyard are making incremental advances that pave the way toward a cure for
cancer, which is Coach Huggins’ ultimate goal.
“Who says we can’t find a cure for cancer right here in West Virginia?” Huggins said. “I think the people in this state deserve a first-class situation in terms of fighting cancer, and we certainly have that. But we’ve got to get more. We’ve got to get it to the point where we really can help. I would be the happiest person in the world if we found a cure for cancer right here in West Virginia.”
Huggins’ advocacy for clinical trials has not only boosted financial support via the Norma Mae fund, but also created valuable opportunities to reiterate the importance of healthy behaviors in cancer prevention and regular medical screenings for early detection.
Make a donation to the Norma Mae Huggins Cancer Research Endowment Fund. Gifts are made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that solicits and administers private donations on behalf of the University.