Claudia and her two grandchildren, River (l) and Quinn
Photo: Kelley Solomon
It started with mild indigestion and some sharp stomach pain, but the heartburn got worse over the course of a few months. Over-the-counter meds didn’t seem to help much.
“I’ll get this checked out after I get back from my summer vacation,” said Claudia M., but the first appointment she could get was in early October. That was 2013 and she was 63. By fall, she had developed back pain, regurgitation and trouble swallowing.
It wasn’t acid reflux, Claudia learned from her doctor, but something much worse.
“I’m almost 100 percent sure it’s esophageal cancer,” Claudia’s doctor informed her, which began a journey of appointments and tests that confirmed the diagnosis.
It was metastatic stage IV esophageal cancer, to be specific, and the prognosis was not good.
“I told my family, ‘Don’t go online and search on survival,’” Claudia remembers. She began chemotherapy right away but was advised to forego surgery since the tumor had already spread beyond her esophagus.
In between chemotherapy sessions, Claudia started reading about her condition. She happened upon what seemed to her a really interesting approach called immunotherapy. This treatment type, which harnesses an individual’s immune system to fight his or her cancer, is finding success against various cancers.
With some help from family, friends and her doctors at Yale, she searched ClinicalTrials.gov—an NIH service—and found a clinical trial testing immunotherapy for her subtype of esophageal cancer.
Claudia wasn’t the slightest bit daunted about participating in clinical research—in fact this is her second study: She is a two-time breast cancer survivor as well. “I wanted to try something that wasn’t a traditional treatment; I didn’t want to just sit around and do nothing,” she explained.
She qualified for a study that is testing a cancer vaccine on cancer survivors with “NED,” or no evidence of disease, which is still the case for her a year after receiving chemotherapy. If it works, the immunotherapy aims to keep the cancer from coming back.
Claudia knows fully what the role of research is—testing ideas to see if they work. Before cancer, she was a lifelong blood donor. She sees clinical research as a way to contribute to the greater good, including helping the doctors doing the study.
“It may not help anybody, but at least they’ll know to stop looking,” she said.
Claudia also hopes to participate in a National Cancer Institute “exceptional responders” research project that aims to determine whether certain people have beneficial health attributes that keep them disease-free.
Having lived through three cancers and now “feeling great,” Claudia approaches each day with a renewed sense of appreciation. At her January NIH clinic visit, she heard the news that her second grandchild had been born and a third is due in June. She cannot wait.
“I love birthdays now,” she said with a wide smile.