Vicki and Carl Baucum
As she had done for years, in 2012, Vicki Baucum scheduled her annual mammogram for early October. When her doctor, Keith Reeves, requested she undergo additional testing, she hardly gave it a second thought. “I have dense breast tissue, so additional testing was not uncommon,” she says.
But just because a test is routine, it doesn’t mean the results will be predictable. A week before Thanksgiving, Dr. Reeves delivered life-altering news to Vicki and her husband Carl: The additional tests revealed she had a malignant tumor. The diagnosis launched them on a 10-month journey underpinned by faith and trust. Dr. Reeves, now retired and the former chair of Houston Methodist’s Center for Restorative Pelvic Medicine, immediately arranged for Vicki to meet the next day with Dr. Jenny Chang, director of the Houston Methodist Cancer Center and holder of the Emily Herrmann Chair for Cancer Research. “Dr. Reeves told me, ‘Whatever she tells you to do, you do; she knows more about breast cancer than anyone, so trust her completely.’ And, that’s what I did,” Vicki says.
When Vicki and Carl arrived at their first meeting with internationally renowned physician Dr. Chang, they came armed with notepads, ready to take notes for later reference. After their first few minutes with her, Dr. Chang requested Vicki’s pad and pencil. “She said, ‘I’ll take the notes, you just listen.’ We listened and immediately felt totally at ease and confident that we were in the right place. I never worried and always felt most positive about my future. I trusted Dr. Chang completely and had a very strong faith that God was by my side.” Dr. Chang forthrightly yet compassionately told Vicki she had grade 3 triple-negative breast cancer, and it was very aggressive. She followed this up with a single reassuring promise, “I will help you fight this.”
As with her diagnosis, Vicki’s treatment plan came together very fast. The following week, she underwent a battery of tests as Dr. Chang collaborated with a team of expert colleagues from Houston Methodist and around the world to create a unique and tailored treatment regimen, which would include chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.
Dr. Chang recommended chemotherapy first, thereby allowing her to study the effects of the chemo on the tumor.
Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for only 15 percent of breast cancer cases, and the disease does not respond to therapies targeting the three receptors known to cause the majority of breast cancers. Vicki became part of a clinical trial using a taxane-based chemo. After four infusions, the tumor had nearly doubled in size. “Triple-negative breast cancer is difficult to control,” Dr. Chang explains. “Unlike other cancers, we don’t know what causes it. It’s genetically unstable, so the treatment is not targeted – instead there are multiple targets that must be treated.” Dr. Chang then started Vicki on a combination chemotherapy called AC, which required an infusion every three weeks. During this time, Dr. Chang received results of a genetic analysis she ordered, and it revealed that Vicki’s tumor was made up of not one, but two different mutated genes.
Armed with this additional information, Dr. Chang and her colleagues again tweaked Vicki’s treatment and supplemented the AC infusions with weekly infusions of the targeted blocker EGFR, which specifically targeted one of Vicki’s two mutated genes.
Vicki and Carl’s confidence in Dr. Chang never wavered. Never were they surprised when she would suggest additional ways to attack Vicki’s most unusual cancer. So, when Dr. Chang recommended adding another type of chemo infusion, coupled with a daily targeted blocker in pill form, there was no hesitation. The couple agreed.
The revised regimen quickly improved Vicki’s prognosis. By May 2013, the tumor shrunk to less than its original size, providing the ideal circumstances for Dr. Barbara Bass, John F., Jr. and Carolyn Bookout Presidential Distinguished Chair, to remove what was left.
In all, during a 10-month period, Vicki received 28 infusions, participated in a clinical trial, underwent surgery and had 33 rounds of radiation. She and her husband also formed lifelong bonds with Dr. Chang and many others at Houston Methodist.
Now, more than a year later and in remission, Vicki says, “I do not have any bad memories. All of my memories are of caring and nurturing people -- the parking attendants at the Outpatient Center, greeters, receptionists, infusion nurses, technicians, pharmacists, dieticians, Dr. Chang and her group of doctors – each person was part of a team that helped me along this journey. I was confident, as well as energized, by the entire Houston Methodist team. Not to be overlooked is the significance of the unceasing support I received from family and friends. There were many prayers said, meals provided, cards, visits and phone calls. All of these things contributed to a successful outcome.”
Grateful and appreciative of the care they received, Vicki and Carl considered ways to show their thankfulness. Most particularly they wanted to support Dr. Chang and her research. Their decision was made after learning about CREDO: The Center for drug REpositioning and DevelOpment. Many of the drugs approved by the FDA for other uses may hold promise for the treatment of breast cancer. But a program has never existed to test their effectiveness on this disease. CREDO fills this void. By repositioning existing approved drugs, researchers will avoid significant costs and the decades-long discovery process, ultimately providing faster treatment to patients. This leading medicine research has the potential to transform the treatment of breast cancer patients. The Baucums gave a dollar-for-dollar match in support of CREDO program fundraising. At the time of publication, they had raised more than $300,000.
An example of the type of promising drug repositioning opportunities available includes the discovery of a new molecule that was tested as a post-heart attack treatment. While the drug failed in its intended heart therapy purpose, preliminary findings in patient-derived animal models show that it may provide a novel approach to overcoming treatment-resistant triple-negative breast cancer. Currently, no targeted treatment exists for this aggressive form of breast cancer.
“Cancer care is more science than art, but you need to be able to provide the most effective treatment and encourage new findings in treatment and research while having the ability to help patients and their families through a difficult time,” Dr. Chang says.
The Baucums, she says, showed amazing strength and courage throughout, and Vicki endured her rigorous treatment with great stoicism.
Vicki says, “A very important ingredient in this process is having faith in God, your doctors and yourself. Triple-negative breast cancer is a disease the world doesn’t really know much about.
“But, if you’re going to receive a triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis, Houston Methodist is where you need to be,” Vicki says. “Trial and discovery, plus faith-based medicine – it’s truly the Houston Methodist Cancer Center way.”
Dr. Jenny Chang’s pioneering work has helped transform triple-negative breast cancer research, providing hope for those diagnosed with this aggressive disease.