Judy Bultman isn’t in a desperate fight for her life.
She had kidney cancer but following surgery that included the removal of her left kidney and adrenal glands, doctors believe it is gone.
Still, the West Point, Ga., woman is taking part in a clinical trial at the John B. Amos Cancer Center in Columbus.
“I’ve been told my cancer could return,” Bultman said, relaxing in the center’s meditation room. “But taking part in the trial is more than an attempt to stop that from happening. It’s a chance for me to give back and maybe help someone else.”
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There is a perception that those who take part in clinical trials do so as a last resort after all other treatments have failed, and that the desire to survive has made them willing to be a guinea pig for experimental drugs.
But Andrew Pippas, the center’s medical director, says nothing could be further from the truth.
“My first impulse when we get a new patient is to wonder whether they could benefit by being in a clinical trial. Those who are eligible we encourage to do so,” said Pippas, noting that leading facilities such as M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center in Durham, N.C., are big advocates of trials.
Pippas said he would be “suspect” of a cancer center that didn’t encourage participation.
The local center, considered among the best in the state, is involved in anywhere from 30 to 45 trials at a time.
Pippas would like to see that number grow into the 60s.
He said only about one-third of the patients coming to the center will take part in a trial.
“Some just have a fear of the unknown,” Pippas said. “Some are concerned about getting placebos, but we don’t use placebos in the treatment of cancer.”
The center will see some 1,100 new patients this year from a 14-county area. Pippas said patients who take part in the trials come from different socioeconomic and educational levels.
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The center makes no profit from the trials, which are sponsored by large national cancer institutes, pharmaceutical companies and the Georgia Center for Oncology for Research and Education.
All the medicines used are Federal Drug Administration approved and trials are monitored by the National Institute of Health.
Areas that trials include are increasing the chance of survival, preventing a reoccurrence of the disease and improving the quality of life by reducing side effects of treatments.
“We see how different medications work together and which are the most effective for certain cancers,” said Pippas, adding that one in five people involved in trials take part in a “breakthrough therapy.”
“The trials allow us to give patients the best possible care,” he added.
Bultman, 61, is a Columbus native who lived 16 years in Mississippi. After the Veterans Administration hospital where she worked, and the church where her husband, Jerry, was pastor, were both destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, she returned home.
“I was getting a physical and my doctor suggested a chest X-ray,” Bultman said.
Nodules were found in her lungs that proved to be harmless but a CT scan of her lungs discovered the cancer on the tip of a kidney.
“The kidney wasn’t even supposed to be seen,” she said. “It was by accident that we found the problem.”
After surgery was complete, she came to see Pippas who told her there was nothing else that could be done; the cancer was gone. But there was an international clinical trial taking place that might prevent the recurrence of cancer.
Though Bultman says the side effects from the drugs weren’t pleasant, she feels what she is doing is worthwhile. A sister has already died of pancreatic cancer. She has three children and five grandchildren.
“By participating in these trials patients may be paving the pathway to save a child or grandchild,” Pippas said.