Even at age 69, Saundra is the kind of grandmother who loves to get on the trampoline with the grandkids at Christmas.
"I was only on my hands and knees, and the kids bounced me, but it was fun," said the Peoria resident. At Thanksgiving she and her husband rented a large home in Flagstaff and invited their kids and grandkids to spend five days playing in the snow. "We had a wonderful time."
An eternal optimist, she also enjoys shopping, golfing and hosting dinner parties. Lately, she's been faithful about walking. "I need to build my strength up," she said. It's been a challenging year.
On Jan. 8, 2015, she received a diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Doctors gave her three to six months to live. "I figured I was going to die," she said. "The surgeons opened me up, saw that the cancer had metastasized, and then closed me right back up. They couldn't treat it surgically.
"I was never angry about my diagnosis," she continued. "I just became intent on figuring this out," she said. She went online and searched hard for clinical trials. She found a promising one at the HonorHealth Research Institute and the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center.
"What did I have to lose?" she asked. "My doctors had given me three to six months with no quality of life. They had advised me to get my affairs in order."
In February 2015, she enrolled in a clinical trial using three drugs administered by infusion to treat her advanced pancreatic cancer.
A great response
On Jan. 6, 2016, almost one year to the day of her diagnosis, a CT scan revealed an almost normal pancreas. "There's a tiny spot," Saundra said. "It's amazing! I feel wonderful. I did lose my hair, but it's coming back. And I have wigs in the meantime."
Gayle Jameson, nurse practitioner and investigator for the clinical trial, said that "the pilot program for this trial has shown a positive response rate of 80 percent. Saundra has had a great response. We're treading new waters with this and other trials, where patients are living much longer with advanced pancreatic cancer. We're now exploring maintenance therapies to keep the disease under long-term control."
Thrilled with her results, Saundra wonders why more people don't participate in clinical trials. "Why not help someone else while you're searching for a cure?" she asked.
The staff at the HonorHealth Research Institute, from the receptionist to the nurses to the doctors, couldn't do enough for her, she said. "There's not a thing I would change. The doctors laid out choices, and then we made the decisions about my care."
Saundra started an oral maintenance medication on Jan. 7, 2016. After her last infusion a few days earlier, she said it felt like leaving family when she went out the door.
"The Research Institute is a wonderful place; it's not a sad place," she said. "People have hope there. I say this all the time: ‘I started with no cure and no hope. Now there's no problem!' Thank you, HonorHealth Research Institute!"