Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world and the leading cause of cancer deaths, making up almost 25 percent of all cancer deaths. Often the disease does not show symptoms until it has progressed to advanced stages, when it is difficult to treat and chances of survival decrease.
For Laura Baker, 63, of French Village, Mo., her lung cancer diagnosis three years ago was certainly surprising, but in some ways, not necessarily unexpected. Although she had been healthy and strong throughout most of her life, Baker was diagnosed with pneumonia 10 years earlier, which landed her at Christian North Hospital for six days. At that time, she was referred to a lung specialist.
“That’s when I learned that my lungs were full – three-quarters in the left lung and one-quarter full in the right. The doctor was shocked that I was still alive,” recalled Baker. “I began to wonder if this was the result of exposure to asbestos during summer visits to see family in Libby, Montana. Libby is the site of one of America's worst man-made environmental disasters involving toxic asbestos dust from the vermiculite mines. My extended family was among those affected.”
A Lung Cancer Diagnosis
Then, in December 2019, Baker came down with another bout of pneumonia. She was eventually referred to Bryan Faller, MD, a medical oncologist and hematologist at Parkland Health Center and Missouri Baptist Medical Center after she underwent a CT scan, which revealed a mass the size of a lemon in her lung. A biopsy confirmed that the mass was indeed stage 3 lung cancer.
“Stage 3 non-small cell lung cancer is potentially curable with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation followed by immunotherapy, a type of medicine that can cause the immune system to attack any remaining cancer,” said Dr. Faller. “Unfortunately, more than half to two-thirds of patients will still have the cancer come back within five years of completing this treatment. The Cancer Center at Parkland Health Center is now one of the top enrolling sites nationally of a clinical trial looking to improve upon these results.”
The Cancer Center at Parkland Health Center
Baker would need to undergo both chemotherapy and immunotherapy. She chose to receive her treatments at the Cancer Center at Parkland Health Center, which is close to her home – only 30 minutes away. She also enjoys the staff she’s gotten to know over the course of her 16-month treatment regimen.
“Everyone at the Cancer Center at Parkland Health has been so kind and caring,” said Baker. “Cancer is not an easy road to travel, but the staff there has made my cancer journey much more manageable.”
Unfortunately, in January 2022, Baker learned her cancer had metastasized and was now considered stage 4. After undergoing a biopsy in February 2022, she agreed to participate in a trial supported by the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Cancer MoonshotÔ program, which focuses on areas of cancer research that are most likely to benefit patients because of new investment. The Cancer Moonshot has brought together a large community of patients, advocates, researchers, and clinicians who are dedicated to advancing research to improve the lives of people with cancer, those at risk, and their loved ones. Baker is one of 1,000 participants in the trial, which is aimed at using genetic information from the biopsy of a cancer to help an oncologist select the best treatment suited for that cancer.
The Lung-MAP Clinical Trial
Under Dr. Faller’s advisement, Baker also enrolled in the NCI’s Lung-MAP (Lung Cancer Master Protocol) Clinical Trial, which is a precision medicine clinical trial for people with advanced non-small cell lung cancer that has continued to grow after treatment. The Lung-MAP is an umbrella trial, which allow many drugs to be tested at one time and to be tested in the patients who are most likely to benefit, as in Baker’s case. The purpose of Lung-MAP is to learn if drugs that target the genetic changes in the cancer cells will slow or stop non-small cell lung cancer from growing.
“After a cancer has become resistant to a first course of medical therapy, it becomes more challenging to treat. The Lung-MAP trial is a way to rapidly and efficiently develop better treatment options in this setting,” said Dr. Faller.
Baker was able to participate in the Lung-MAP trial at Parkland Health Center’s Cancer Center. Partnering with Missouri Baptist Medical Center, Parkland Health Center offers the same medical oncology, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and clinical trials – like the Lung-MAP trial – that are offered at Missouri Baptist.
Baker was equally excited to have this opportunity. She was hopeful this new approach would be effective, and perhaps she would beat lung cancer. The Lung-MAP trial included a combination of chemotherapy drugs, and fortunately, Baker didn’t experience any major side effects from the treatment other than some swelling at the injection site.
On the Road to Remission
“Better yet, this combination of treatment started to show signs that it was working early on,” said Baker. “My lymph nodes began to return to normal. And then, after just my third treatment, Dr. Faller said my cancer was in remission. I was absolutely giddy!”
Dr. Faller was also quite pleased to see how well Baker was responding to this new course of treatment. Her scans still showed some scarring on her lungs, but all signs indicated they were on the right track.
“So far, Laura is doing better than I could have imagined with this new treatment,” said Dr. Faller. “I am very excited about the promise of this drug combination for all patients with lung cancer and so proud of Laura for contributing to this trial.”
For now, Baker is continuing with her Lung-MAP treatment at Parkland Health Center. She looks forward to enjoying a healthier 2023, focused on her recovery.
“I’m incredibly grateful to Dr. Faller and my medical team for their expertise and dedication to helping me navigate my lung cancer journey. I wouldn’t be where I am without them,” said Baker. “Hopefully, my story and experience can inspire others who may be facing a similar cancer diagnosis and prognosis.”