Stephenson Cancer Center Patient Finds Hope, Healing in Journey With Cancer
Published: Monday, November 18, 2019
In Susan Laurence’s battle against a highly aggressive form of uterine cancer, she has defied the odds and harnessed cutting-edge medical care to live life on her own terms.
The ruthless reality of cancer is that it can steal a person’s hope and quality of life. For Laurence, that simply wasn’t an option.
In 2015, Laurence arrived at Stephenson Cancer Center at OU Medicine after being diagnosed with uterine cancer. She learned that the cancer had metastasized to a lymph node and was poorly differentiated, which happens in less than 1% of patients and is very difficult to treat. In the four years since, she has undergone numerous treatments, seen the cancer spread to her spine and brain, lost the ability to walk and then relearned how, and today has stable disease thanks to a phase 1 clinical trial.
“She is remarkable, and she has exceeded expectations,” said Debra Richardson, M.D., her current gynecologic oncologist at Stephenson Cancer Center. “I’m happy that treatment has allowed her to regain her life and do the things she enjoys, such as traveling the world. That’s the whole point of treatment – to be able to live life to the fullest.”
When she first became a patient at Stephenson Cancer Center, Laurence’s gynecologic oncologist was Robert Mannel, M.D., director of the Cancer Center. He performed surgery, then she received radiation and chemotherapy on a National Cancer Institute clinical trial that was testing a particular combination. For about a year, she was fine, but in March 2017, she learned that her cancer had recurred.
Mannel sent her tumor for testing, and the results were not favorable. She had numerous genetic mutations, whereas some cancers only have one or two. She also was found to have microsatellite instability – rather than correcting errors that occur in DNA replication, her cells were creating more mutations.
The news kept getting worse. The cancer spread to her brain and to her spine, compressing the spinal cord. She suddenly lost the ability to walk.
“I literally could not raise my feet to put one in front of the other,” said Laurence, an Edmond resident. “I got a motorized scooter.”
After radiation to her spine and the brain lesion, the cancer shrunk and Laurence was able to move her legs and, with a lot of physical therapy, learned to walk again.
“The side effect of losing my hair seemed silly in comparison,” she said. “I was alive and breathing and had tomorrow to look forward to. I was nursed into that feeling by all the loving, wonderful people around me.”
Laurence soon learned she was a candidate for a phase 1 clinical trial, which tests drugs for the first time in humans. She was one of the first participants to receive an immunotherapy drug thought to be appropriate for cancer patients with numerous mutations like hers. The drug works by unmasking the cancer cells, which had been hiding, so that the body’s own immune system can recognize them as foreign and attack them.
Laurence has now completed 21 cycles of the treatment, nearly two years’ worth, and goes to Stephenson Cancer Center every six weeks for a new infusion. While she is not in remission, her cancer has not progressed, and she has few side effects from the treatment.
“It excites me to think that what doctors learn from my study might be somebody else’s future,” Laurence said. “There was no question that I wanted to be on the clinical trial. I’m OK knowing that something I’m living with may yield answers that are a salvation for somebody else.”
Mannel said Laurence serves as a great example of why a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center like Stephenson, with its breadth of research and clinical trials, is crucial to improving life expectancy and quality of life. Laurence is at the center of a team that strives to give her the best treatment options today while creating more possibilities for those who will one day walk in her shoes.
“Battling cancer is a team approach,” Mannel said. “It’s about creating a supportive environment and providing opportunities for the patient to fight cancer. Susan is a great example of someone who has battled cancer with dignity and energy, as well as someone who is participating in a clinical trial not only for her own benefit, but for the ways it will help countless women in the future.”