Beth L Benefitting from Clinical Trials

"There can’t be advances if we don’t have people willing to participate in clinical trials.”

Clinical trials can provide hope for those facing a cancer diagnosis. RWJBarnabas Health (RWJBH), in partnership with Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey—the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center—currently offers more than 200 clinical trials. These research initiatives study or test new medications, interventions and practices that may help control symptoms and side effects, in some cases investigating new ways of using available drugs.

Seth Cohen, MD
Seth Cohen, MD

Clinical trials offer patients a number of advantages. “When a patient enrolls, they’re not just joining forces with one doctor doing research on the latest treatments,” says Seth Cohen, MD, Regional Medical Director of Oncology Services, RWJBH Southern Region, and a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group. “The patient actually gets an additional team of top doctors and nurses following their care in various ways.”

Patients may also receive new therapies that earlier research has shown to be appropriate for clinical use but are not yet broadly available. “You’re getting the benefit of cutting-edge research in advance of the general population,” says Trishala Meghal, MD, a medical oncologist at Monmouth Medical Center (MMC) and Monmouth Medical Center Southern Campus (MMCSC), and a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group.

Trishala Meghal, MD
Trishala Meghal, MD

There’s another benefit as well: Participants play a meaningful role in improving cancer care for other patients. Two patients who took part in different clinical trials explain how their participation gives them hope for their diagnosis—and the future of medicine.

Boosting Therapy

Around the time she turned 40 in 2021, Beth Lynch, Chief Executive Officer at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital, a joint venture with MMC, was diagnosed with stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer—an aggressive form of the disease characterized by abnormal swelling, redness and often a puckering of the breast’s skin.

“Cancer in general is scary enough,” says Lynch, who lives in Tinton Falls. “To then also be stage 4, your first question is, ‘How long do I have?’”

Lynch was fortunate. Her cancer was positive for the protein HER2, which responds to a number of treatments. This diagnosis also made her eligible for a clinical trial of a therapy that could further improve her odds against the disease.

Lynch was the first person in the country to be enrolled in the multisite clinical trial, which is investigating whether adding the medication Tucatinib to existing drug protocols for her condition can prevent the cancer from spreading to the brain.

“With HER2-positive breast cancer, the chances of it recurring in the brain are quite high,” says Dr. Meghal. “Preventing that from occurring might allow us to give a patient other helpful, systemic therapies for a longer period of time.”

Tucatinib was previously approved for advanced forms of breast cancer. “We already know it’s an effective medication,” says Dr. Meghal. “We’re just providing it at an earlier point in treatment.”

To qualify for the trial, Lynch first had to undergo a course of chemotherapy, during which support from family members who flew from Washington State allowed her to continue working.

Lynch was then put on treatment for her cancer plus either Tucatinib or a placebo. She won’t know which she is taking until after the trial ends, a practice that helps ensure accurate results.

“Selfishly, you hope you get the benefit of whatever they’re studying,” says Lynch, who has fared well on the regimen. “But [even if I’m receiving the placebo] it’s still worth it. There can’t be advances if we don’t have people willing to participate in clinical trials.”

A Jump on Treatment

In late 2019, John White, 68, an application engineer for an electronic security company in Ocean Township, began having occasional abdominal cramps. “A couple of times, it felt like something was blocked,” he says.

Blood tests at a walk-in clinic revealed that White was anemic, or low in oxygen-carrying red blood cells. This finding combined with his symptoms prompted his doctor to schedule a colonoscopy.

The results weren’t encouraging: White was diagnosed with colon cancer. “I found out I had cancer on a Friday, and they did surgery the following Monday,” says White, who has two adult sons and several grandchildren. “My family was very worried.”

Further tests showed that the cancer had spread to White’s lung. He received 19 rounds of chemotherapy plus targeted therapies—treatments that selectively attack cancer cells without affecting normal cells.

Eventually, the cancer shrank, and blood levels of a tumor marker dropped. But levels started to rise again months later. “I’d been hoping I was out of the woods,” White says.

Dr. Cohen then suggested White enroll in a clinical trial designed to see if patients with metastatic colon cancer benefited from early use of a combination drug, trifluridine/tipiracil, which is typically added to treatment in patients like White later in the course of the disease. “In this trial, we’re doubling down earlier,” Dr. Cohen says.

White started taking the drug in November 2021. “We haven’t published the results yet, but this regimen appears to have great efficacy,” Dr. Cohen says. “We’ve enrolled a good number of patients in this study, and participants have had remarkable results, well above our expectations.”

White is in it for the long haul. “It’s been good all around,” he says. “I trust my doctor.”

RWJBarnabas Health and Monmouth Medical Center provide close-to-home access to the most advanced cancer treatment options. Call 844.CANCERNJ (844-226-2376) to make an appointment with one of our cancer specialists.

Browse clinical trials offered by RWJBarnabas Health.