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Every morning, Paula Clifford and her two sisters take a two-mile walk along the beach or cranberry bog trails near her home on Cape Cod, Mass. She breathes in the salt air, listens to the rhythm of the surf, looks out over the sea, and chats with her lifelong companions.
These are precious moments for her, an ovarian cancer survivor since 2001.
Clifford, 68, is currently the longest participant in a clinical trial testing the efficacy of the oral medication sunitinib malate (brand name Sutent), a therapy approved for kidney cancer that is used experimentally for ovarian cancer.
After seeking medical attention for abdominal bloating, she was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian epithelial cancer, which forms on the surface of the ovaries.
She had a hysterectomy and chemotherapy at a hospital near her home, followed by more rounds of chemotherapy over the years each time her cancer came back.
"The third time I was really sick, and wanted to avoid having chemo again," she recalls. She came to Dana-Farber seeking a new approach, and met with Dana-Farber oncologist, Susana Campos, MD, MPH, who was studying the role of Sutent in cases of ovarian cancers that had been resistant to other treatments, and/or had recurred.
Sutent inhibits the growth of blood vessels that help fuel tumor growth, explains Dr. Campos, who is also principal investigator for the study. Dr. Campos offered Clifford the chance to enroll in the clinical trial.
"I talked it over with my husband and sons, and we all decided it was worth trying," Clifford says. "I have a lot of faith in the little pill I take every night. It is holding things at bay."
Side effects for Sutent include high blood pressure and sores in the mouth and on the skin, says Clifford's nurse, Christin Whalen, RN.
"When Paula experienced these problems, plus diminished appetite and weight loss, she was determined to persevere. So we reduced the dose."
Clifford's cancer is not gone, but it is also not growing, and Clifford says she feels better than ever.
The adage "when one door closes another opens" proved true for Clifford and her family. She retired from her job in sales for Verizon when she received her diagnosis at age 59.
In 2002, she and her husband, Jack, moved from their home near Worcester, Mass., to her late parents' home in Harwich, Mass., situated on a pond and full of memories. Her sisters relocated nearby, and her two sons and their families visit often, filling the house once more with the voices of children.
"I never expected to live this long," she says. "But in the past nine years I have been able to see my sons get married and my three grandchildren join the world. I am very grateful."
Turning Point 2010