Mothers and daughters bond, fight cancer together
November 4, 2016 | by Stephanie Smith
Laura Rodriguez was 18, just starting college, when she dropped out to help her mother, Mary Grace, whose breast cancer had returned after seven years. Instead of hanging out around campus with friends, she sat in drab hospital rooms as her mother got chemotherapy.
But the pair were far from despondent. They took on the diagnosis, fighting to enroll in clinical trials, and even bringing occasional levity to the experience.
“She would have chemotherapy intravenously and she would have to go through seven bottles,” said Rodriguez. “I remember being at her hospital bed cheering her on — ‘Come on let's get through this bottle so you can go home.’”
Rodriquez's mother decided that despite the seriousness of this second bout with breast cancer — despite the side effects she was experiencing, her difficulty with treatment and the fact that the clinical trial she had found was not helping — she would be alive to see all three of her daughters graduate high school.
“She said there was no way she was going to leave her kids because she wanted to make sure we were OK,” said Rodriguez, who is the youngest in her family. “I graduated in June and she passed away January.”
The experience left an indelible, emotional imprint on Rodriguez. “My mom had breast cancer starting when I was 2 and my sisters and I, we endured a lot going through that,” said Rodriguez, now 56. “I never thought that it would happen again.”
History repeats itself
Thirty-five years later, cancer would happen again — and in some ways, history would repeat itself.
In 2012, Rodriguez went to urgent care with neck pain and what she thought was an ear infection. “I just didn’t feel right,” she said. “Something just wasn’t right.”
When tests indicated Rodriguez’s sinuses and ears were clear, doctors surmised she had a bacterial infection and did an X-ray to confirm. Further tests revealed a blood clot in Rodriguez’s neck and a spot — a small and seemingly innocuous smudge on an otherwise clean X-ray of her lungs.
Doctors, perhaps to assuage any lung cancer fears, told Rodriguez not to worry; that the spot “was probably nothing.” But more scans and a biopsy proved otherwise: Rodriguez, who was an intermittent social smoker did, in fact, have lung cancer. At that point, the disease was confined to her right lung and nearby lymph nodes.
As Rodriguez struggled to process what was happening, her daughter Krista was by her side. When Rodriguez was diagnosed, it would be her daughter who dropped out. And it would be her daughter who dutifully sat with her mother as she got chemo.
“She quit school. She wanted to take care of me,” said Rodriguez tearfully. “With my mom I put my life on hold and that's kind of what my daughter did, too. “
The two trudged through many difficult moments together, and eventually the entire family was doing everything they could to help Rodriguez overcome her dire diagnosis, including finding potential clinical trials.
‘I have that mutation, which makes me lucky’
A fierce and determined mindset — reminiscent of her mother’s — and a fleeting memory led Rodriguez to City of Hope.
“My mom had come to City of Hope at one time during her cancer journey,” said Rodriguez. “I remember I used to pass by on the freeway and say to myself, ‘Hopefully I'll never have to go there.’”
But eventually she would go to City of Hope. As she visited other top cancer hospitals after her diagnosis, Rodriguez kept hearing about the work of Karen Reckamp, M.D., M.S., co-director of the Lung Cancer and Thoracic Oncology Program.
“We found out about Dr. Reckamp and that she ran clinical trials and that she was the best of the best,” said Rodriguez, who says testing of her tumor at City of Hope revealed she had something called an ALK translocation — a genetic problem driving the growth of her cancer cells — that could potentially be targeted by new drugs.
“Many types of lung cancers have genetic changes that occur within the tumor that cause the cancer to grow,” said Reckamp in a previous interview. “We have specific targeted therapies for some of these genetic changes that patients can take instead of conventional chemotherapy to block the cancer growth.
“That’s a new story for lung cancer.”
Rodriguez says of the genetics of her particular type of lung cancer: “I am ALK positive so I have that mutation, which makes me lucky.”
‘It’s all gone’
Around two years after she was first diagnosed, and shortly after beginning care at City of Hope, Rodriguez was on a drug designed to thwart the uncontrolled cell growth caused by ALK.
The drug, called crizotinib, worked for a while but after about a year it lost its potency; she soon found out her cancer had spread widely throughout her body — to her left lung, pelvis, stomach and bones.
But there was another option called brigatinib: an investigational therapy for lung cancer that somtimes works on ALK positive cancers that do not respond to crizotinib. Rodriguez said that shortly after starting brigatinib, her tumors, her cancer, all signs of disease melted away.
“It's all gone. There's no signs of it,” said Rodriguez. “My lungs are clear… my blood work looks good. Everything looks good.”
So good that Rodriguez's daughter now is back in school, and the entire family is resting a little easier.
Rodriguez says her mother’s memory — the strong will she had through years of fighting breast cancer — still swirl around her now.
“If my mom could do it, if she had the mindset that she could get through it, then I can get through it,” said Rodriguez. “My mom said she wanted to be alive until her kids got through high school. Well I’m not going anywhere until I get to hold my grandkids.”
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