A groundbreaking study at Levine Cancer Institute blazes a trail for the future of metastatic cervical cancer treatment.

Women's Health, News | 3 months ago

Cervical Cancer Clinical Trial Offers Stunning Results

A groundbreaking study at Levine Cancer Institute blazes a trail for the future of metastatic cervical cancer treatment.

Cervical cancer is often referred to as a “silent killer” because there are few symptoms in early stages so it can be difficult to detect. Compared to other cancers, cervical cancer has the highest number of years lost per case because it often occurs in young women and is typically diagnosed in advanced stages.

R. Wendel Naumann, MD“Once the cancer recurs the median survival rate is less than a year,” says R. Wendel Naumann, MD, a gynecologic oncologist and associate medical director of clinical trials at Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute (LCI). “That’s why the results of this trial are so rewarding.”

“The standard treatment option for cervical cancer is chemotherapy, but the response rate is about 50%,” Dr. Naumann says. The difference is that in this trial, patient treatment comes in a series of twos. Patients should expect to receive two immunotherapy drugs every two weeks for two years. “The drugs are designed to take the breaks off the immune system and allow the body to attack the cancer,” Dr. Naumann explains. “The thing that is different about immunotherapy is that once the body recognizes the cancer and attacks it, the benefit of the treatment continues after the treatment stops.”

Although the research is ongoing, Dr. Naumann believes the results so far are hopeful. “The degree of response and the duration of response in patients is stunning in this trial,” Dr. Naumann says. “It may lead to long term control or even cure of cervical cancer in the metastatic setting.”

Saving Patients Like Christie

In early 2016, 42-year-old Christie Houser received the crushing news that she had cervical cancer.

“At my age, cervical cancer wasn’t even something I would have thought of,” Christie says. When she was diagnosed, she thought of her husband, their three children, and the milestones she would miss. But her determination remained. To date, Christie is one of three patients who have completed the two-year trial with Dr. Naumann and have not had their cancer return.

Christie initially underwent treatment in her hometown of Asheville, NC, that included six rounds of chemotherapy and more than 30 radiations. In September 2016 Christie began having pain in her shoulder. The results of a CT scan showed her cancer had spread. “The doctors were in shock,” Christie says. “The cancer had taken over my pelvic and hip bones, and my lungs were so covered you couldn’t even see where my lungs were supposed to be.”

Christie’s doctor referred her to Levine Cancer Institute for further evaluation. Christie learned there were treatment options, but the prognosis was grim. “They explained that this was a terminal diagnosis, and it was rare to survive with scans that looked like mine,” Christie says. “They said I could do chemo to buy a little more time with my family.” Christie was disheartened but resolute. “I looked at the nurse and said, ‘I’m going to beat this.’”

But after just a few sessions of chemo, Christie’s body was rejecting the chemo and she was told it was too dangerous to continue radiation. She was frustrated, exhausted, and worried about losing precious time with her family. “My daughter was pregnant, and I just kept thinking, ‘I won’t even get to meet my grandson.’”

That’s when Christie was introduced to Dr. Naumann. “We hit it off immediately,” Christie recalls. Dr. Naumann told Christie about a clinical trial he was a part of that uses immunotherapy to allow the body’s immune system to attack the cancer. “He explained the program and said if I was interested, I would be the first of his patients to start the trial,” Christie says. “I understood the risks, but at that point, what did I have to lose?”

For Christie, the response was substantial. “My dad brought me to my appointment about eight months into my two-year treatment and Dr. Naumann told me that what he had seen in my first scans just wasn’t there anymore,” Christie says. “He said to my dad, ‘Your daughter is a walking miracle.’ My dad and I were both in tears.”

It’s been over two years since Christie completed the clinical trial and her lung scans are clearer than ever. She is a compassionate ally to others navigating their own cancer journey and has even shared her experience as a guest speaker at an event hosted by Hospitality House of Charlotte, where she frequently stayed during her treatments. “I tell people that the trial was my last shot. If I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t be here now.”