In less than two months, the United States Food and Drug Administration has approved seven new treatments for lung cancer, making major progress in the fight against the deadly disease.
“We see patients living longer than I ever dreamed they would have when I started, and living well,” said Dr. Jyoti Patel, a thoracic oncologist and associate vice chair for clinical research at Northwestern Medicine.
One of those patients is Erika Hlavacek from Wilmette. In 2007, the suburban mom and airline pilot, married to a fellow pilot, went to the hospital after a persistent cough and back pain became unbearable.
“Ten days later, I came out with a stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis,” Hlavacek said.
A non-smoker with no family history, Hlavacek was stunned. Another devastating blow came two years later when the cancer spread to her brain.
“I had hundreds of brain mets in my head, brain tumors growing in my head, rapidly,” Hlavacek said.
Hlavacek participated in a clinical trial, trying one drug, then switching to another. Within three weeks, the brain tumors were gone.
“We don't see any evidence of the cancer that was in her brain. These drugs have profound activity,” Dr. Patel said.
Dr. Patel said Northwestern Medicine is able to offer clinical trials to patients earlier.
“Sometimes patients will come to me, very hesitant about participating in clinical trials, feeling that they're going to be a guinea pig. I always say, ‘or you're a trailblazer,'” Dr. Patel said.
Cancer hasn’t been kind to the Hlavacek family. Erika’s husband, Jeff, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, but after surgery and treatment, he is now cancer-free. Erika isn’t as fortunate.
“I have a terminal diagnosis and so I will be in treatment for the rest of my life,” Hlavacek said.
Her treatment has evolved to another FDA-approved drug and radiation, but she believes something better will come.
“I'm positive, in my future, there will be a clinical trial. Clinical trials save lives,” Hlavacek said.