May 11, 2022

Providing opportunities for late-stage cancer treatment

Sarah Smith receiving chemotherapy in a clinic.
Sarah Smith receiving treatment.

Sarah Smith was stunned when her doctor diagnosed her with stage IV breast cancer in May 2017.

“I asked, ‘what are you telling me? What does that mean? Am I dying?’” said Smith, of Wausau. “It was scary.”

Her doctor said that she likely only had six months to a year left to live as her disease progressed. The 39-year-old wife and stepmom of three wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

Her husband suggested Smith go to Madison to get a second opinion from Dr. Kari Braun Wisinski with the UW Carbone Cancer Center. Wisinski is a breast cancer specialist who is actively involved in research with the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium.

Smith left her first meeting with Wisinksi feeling much more at ease.

“She’s been fantastic,” Smith said. “She gave me options right from the beginning.”

Smith’s treatments have included two clinical trials overseen by Wisinski, with the current trial part of a shared effort across five universities in the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium.

Cross-country collaboration

UW Carbone has been an actively-engaged partner in the consortium since its inception in 2013. The consortium unites the efforts of Big Ten universities to advance cancer research and treatments through collaborative and highly-translational clinical trials.

“I think the key advantage of a consortium like the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium is that it brings together a larger group of physician experts and patients,” Wisinski said. “What that does is improve quality of the study, because there is input from multiple experts in the development of the study, and it also allows us to more rapidly identify patients to participate in those studies because we have a larger pool.”

Especially when a trial is targeting a specific subset of patients, Wisinski said having that larger reach to find participants is extremely valuable.

Wisinski is among several UW Carbone researchers from various specialties who are involved with Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium. Wisinski represents UW Carbone on the group’s Steering Committee and spent several years co-leading the Breast Cancer Clinical Trial Working Group. UW Carbone Director Dr. Howard Bailey serves as chair of Cancer Center Directors.

In fact, UW Carbone’s strong commitment also led to the center receiving the 2021 Big Ten CRC Institutional Leadership Award.

Along with the focus on developing cutting-edge treatments, a foundational aspect of the consortium is mentorship for the next generation of researchers. For the breast cancer treatment trial that Smith is participating in, Wisinski is co-leading the effort with a junior researcher from the University of Iowa, Dr. Sheha Phadke.

Participating in a trial

Smith travels weekly from Wausau to Madison to receive her treatments.

The trial focuses on a specific subset of metastatic breast cancer patients, administering regular doses of a combination of medications intended to make tumors in these patients more sensitive and receptive to treatment.

Smith has spent more than a year so far in the trial and feels well. She appreciates that the trial includes regular scans to check the status of her cancer and if there has been additional spread.

“It’s comforting to watch things that closely,” she said.

Smith encouraged others to keep an open mind about clinical trials, especially if they have advanced stage cancers. Participating in trials has provided more options for her to continue fighting.

She also hopes that her efforts can lead to more effective treatments for future cancer patients.

“Anything that I can do to help more people sounds good to me,” Smith said.