Stage 4 lung cancer patient says clinical trial is helping her beat disease

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CLEVELAND – A Dayton mother makes the hours long trip to the Cleveland Clinic at least once a month to participate in a clinical trial she attributes to helping her battle an initial diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer.

Sara Whitlock, 56, says nine years ago she discovered a knot near her collarbone she knew was unusual. The nurse practitioner scheduled an appointment with local doctors where a chest x-ray revealed non-small cell lung cancer.

Whitlock says it spread to both lungs and into her abdomen, yet there was only one thought on her mind when she learned the news.

“I’m not going to see my kids grow up,” said Whitlock. “They were eight and twelve when I was diagnosed. I have two girls and I didn’t think I would live to see my sixth grader graduate from sixth grade.”

Cleveland Clinic Dr. Nathan Pennell said Whitlock’s cancer diagnosis is common and people who are not smokers, like Whitlock, can be diagnosed with the disease.

“It’s the most common type of lung cancer and also the most common cancer worldwide with more than a million cases worldwide a year,” said Dr. Pennell.

Dr. Pennell said things were progressing in a positive direction since Whitlock’s 2010 diagnosis until something changed.

“At the time she was diagnosed, it was such a long time ago that we hadn’t actually discovered that type of lung cancer yet,” Dr. Pennell explained. “At the time we didn’t find any of the commonly known mutations, but later on we did and we discovered she had a relatively uncommon genetic change – something called a RET gene fusion which is only present in one to two percent of people with lung cancer.”

Whitlock started participating in a clinical trial in 2017 and says the it is working better for her than traditional cancer treatments. She says the disease has not progressed in two years.

“They might kill the cancer but they also might make you lose your hair or make you very anemic or something like that and with this targeted therapy I don’t have those things happen,” said Whitlock.

“We’re going to see now people routinely living many years with lung cancer even if we can’t cure it they can live very normal lives,” said Dr. Pennell.

Whitlock was initially given a 3% chance of living five years. Nine years later she says there is little of the disease in her body.

November marks the start of lung cancer awareness month.

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