Cathy Drake's Story
Cathy Drake finds her best hope for beating an incurable cancer.
Most people would agree that there is nothing scarier then hearing the words, "You have cancer." But Cathy Drake found out that there is something more frightening: Hearing that your type of cancer has no cure.
Cathy had always lived an active life. She enjoyed camping, hiking and gardening, and felt fortunate to have a job that provided real meaning to her: Caring for children in the Pediatric Cardiology Department at the Golisano Children's Hospital. But then, in 2003, she began having symptoms that were troubling to her.
"I started having significant fatigue, skin rashes, joint pain," Cathy explains. "I became very symptomatic. I just couldn't do the things that I wanted to do."
She was initially treated by a rheumatologist—a doctor who specialized in arthritis and disorders of the joints—for her Lupus-like conditions. As her symptoms progressed to back and neck pain, visual disturbances and tingling in her arms and legs, her rheumatologist became alarmed and referred her to a neurologist.
"He did a very thorough work up on me," says Cathy. "Since I did a lot of camping, they tested me for Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Fever. But all the tests came back negative. It was a very frustrating time for me. I wondered if I was crazy."
Because of the pain and numbness in her arms and legs, an MRI was ordered. The scans shows enlarged lymph nodes in various parts of her body. A CT scan confirmed that finding. After a lymph node biopsy was ruled out because of complications due to the proximity to Cathy's aorta, her neurologist referred Cathy to Dr. Richard Fisher at the Wilmot Cancer Center, part of the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Though Cathy worked at the same medical center as Dr. Fisher, she confesses that she really didn't know much about him at first. As it turns out, she couldn't have found a more knowledgeable doctor and researcher.
"I found out that Dr. Fisher was an international authority," Cathy says. "I really didn't know who he was before that. When I realized his status as an internationally recognized expert and researcher, I knew I was in the right place."
Dr. Fisher gave Cathy a thorough exam during which he determined her lymph nodes were not normal. A bone marrow biopsy was scheduled, and that was followed up by a lymph node biopsy. Everything confirmed the same conclusion: Cathy had stage IV follicular lymphoma.
"Everything just kind of stopped at that moment," Cathy says. "I felt sick to my stomach. I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn't expect it to be cancer. Everything changed at that moment."
Dr. Fisher told to Cathy that she had a slow-growing lymphoma. While it was not expected to progress quickly, he explained to her that there was no cure. He then laid out Cathy's options: She could do nothing and have doctors simply track the progress of the disease. She could opt for the most current, state-of-the-art care. Or she could take part in a clinical research trial that was yielding very promising results—and that was being lead by Dr. Fisher himself at the Wilmot Cancer Center.
Cathy was given a week to think things over. When she and her husband returned to Willmot, their minds were made up: Cathy would take part in the research trial.
"I started the chemo that afternoon," Cathy recalls. She was given four different drugs that day. And she would return every three weeks for the same treatment, for a total of six times.
This was essentially the same as the standard treatment given to patients across the country for follicular lymphoma. Only after this course of treatment was she given the test drug, called Bexxar, that the research trial was examining.
"They gave me a test dose of it first," says Cathy. "Then, two weeks later, I went back for the therapeutic dose. They administered it in the nuclear medicine department, because the drug itself is radioactive."
Bexxar is called a radio-labeled monoclonal antibody. It works by targeting the cancer cells with radiation. "I had to be isolated for a couple of days because of that," explains Cathy. "Then they did a number of tests to make sure my body was safely getting rid of it."
Receiving Bexxar was the last part of Cathy's treatment. After that, it was simply a matter of waiting to see what the results would be. She returned for CT scans and biopsies after three months.
Cathy got the news she was hoping for: "I was in complete remission! And now, it's been three years. I recently had scans again, and they came back normal."
Cathy has only good things to say about Dr. Fisher. "He's obviously at the top of his field. But he's also very compassionate. He always had an answer for me, and always followed through with me. I'm so grateful that he is my doctor."
Though she had to take time off from work during her treatment, she is now back to her regular schedule in Pediatric Cardiology at Golisano, and is back to exercising, as well. "I'm feeling better now than I have for a very long time," Cathy says.
Still, Cathy realizes that there is no guarantee her cancer won't return. But her experience with Dr. Fisher and the other experts at the Wilmot Cancer Center give her great hope.
"If it does come back, with the research they're doing here at the university I feel confident," Cathy says. "They have the very best doctors here for lymphoma. I'm very lucky. I just couldn't be in better hands."