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Cancer is Crap: Dr. Detroit!

By Leanne Coppen October 8 2018

Rethink is proud to republish the original blog posts of Leanne Coppen first featured by Chatelaine. Leanne passed away in 2011 from metastatic breast cancer and we are honoured that her friends and family have allowed us to share her words here on the Rethink blog.

We love Detroit!

Well, maybe not the urban wasteland / don’t-take-a-wrong-turn-sucka city proper – but we definitely love the gleaming, amazing Karmanos Cancer Center, stuck incongruously in the heart of it. And we especially love the brilliant clinical trial leader there, who shall hereafter be referred to as Dr. Detroit.

Dr. Detroit is world-renowned for her work in testing new cancer drugs. She’s been at Karmanos for 21 years and in that time has brought so many important anti-cancer drugs to market that she’s become a bit of a cancer legend. In person, she’s a thorough, straight-talking, personable, smart, get-it-done whirlwind of a woman – but what we liked best is that she seems completely unafraid to give us hope. Specifically, hope that this drug will work for me. Hope that I might live. She did it in part by saying that for HER2+ cancer, TDM1 is the best drug she has ever worked with.

This is the first time we can remember sitting in the presence of an oncologist who will use a word stronger than “interesting” to describe a trial drug and its potential benefit. And frankly, I really would like a drug to do more than “interest” me, especially if we are going to have to travel several hundred miles every week and raise several tens of thousands of dollars to get it.

Anyway, there we were, listening to Dr. Detroit and feeling the unfamiliar buoyancy of hope for the first time in forever. Amazingly, I was also feeling more energetic than I had in weeks, which was unexpected, especially after the long drive Wednesday (we’ll be taking the train next time.) In fact I’d been totally exhausted when we checked into our room on the hospital campus the evening before, and had a low fever as I got into a hot bath while my husband went out to forage for food. (Let’s just note here that driving around downtown Detroit after dark with Ontario plates and no idea where he’s going is not what I would describe as typical of his intelligence and good judgment, but he did make it back in one piece.) By the time he came back, I was feeling better, sitting up reading in bed, and he remarked that I had colour in my cheeks again and wasn’t coughing continuously. “I don’t want to jinx anything,” he said, “But do you think the chemo could already be working?”

In the morning, I was even better. Neither of us could believe that I was able to walk across the hospital grounds to the clinic, and then sit, eat, talk, and just generally function at an almost normal level. It was a surprise to both of us; hard to believe I was the same woman who, four days earlier, couldn’t get out of bed to get a glass of water. Mind you, four weeks earlier I could go for long walks and chase pigeons through the park with my kid… Anyway, we were just happy that I didn’t seem quite so ready for the Final Curtain anymore.

So when Dr. Detroit remarked that I presented a pretty darn healthy picture for someone whose records note that her oncologist had been recommending palliative care, we confessed that this returned energy was new. “Hm,” she said, “Maybe the vinorelbine is already working.” (More hope!) It turns out that far from disqualifying me from the trial, she wholly endorses me getting chemo and has encouraged me to continue to get it weekly, if possible, until the 21-day cut-off point.

So, if all goes well, I can begin the trial in May. I will get TDM1 plus two other drugs, pertuzumab and Taxol. They’re being tested in combination for the first time together, which is why this is called a Phase 1 trial, but the drugs themselves are not Phase 1 drugs – they’ve reached far beyond that – and I am optimistic that they can really help me.

What if it works? I think it really could. Really, I do, because Dr. Detroit does, and she’s been around the cancer block a few times.

But first, all must go well. Meaning I have to get through at least five more weeks without my health deteriorating any further, I have to navigate the not inconsiderable administrative hurdles of getting my records transferred to Karmanos, I have to continue to get vinorelbine (and even lobby to get an extra dose, if possible) and I have to raise massive amounts of money.

But most important of all – and here, ladies and gentlemen, is the catch – there can be no brain metastases. Because if there is, I am not eligible for the trial. Period.

Or, as I like to say, if there is cancer in the brain, I can’t get on the train.

So, even though the CT scan was clear, everything now depends on an MRI of my brain. I believe I can get through all the other challenges, but this one thing I just can’t control. Why is there an aura in my right eye? Go away, damn aura. Out damn spot! Becasue having just found hope again, I can’t stand the idea of losing it so soon.

Read more Cancer is Crap blogs by Leanne Coppen