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Midwest Cancer Alliance member in Hays is the site of a key breast cancer trial

March 01, 2013

By Laura Long

Anne O'Dea, M.D., with clinical trials patient Patty Currey

Anne O'Dea, M.D., likes to plan ahead. She first thought about becoming a doctor when she was 11 years old and began to consider working with cancer patients while shadowing oncologist Allan Fleming, M.D., in high school. In medical school O'Dea had her eye on an oncology fellowship and worked hard to earn a spot.

But during her fellowship at the University of Kansas Medical Center, something happened that O'Dea never imagined or planned. She was offered the chance to help develop a cancer trial that would one day change lives on the other end of Kansas - and perhaps even further away than that.

In 2008 Qamar Khan, M.D., an associate professor of hematology/oncology at KU Medical Center, asked O'Dea to help write the protocol for a study that combined two cancer drugs, Abraxane and Herceptin, which had shown promise in breast cancer patients with a high HER-2 expression - or cell growth factor. Khan believed that Stage II and Stage III breast cancer patients with lower HER-2 factors would also benefit from the drugs. "Dr. Khan approached me with his idea for this protocol and the more I read about the topic, the more excited I was about the opportunity to be involved," says O'Dea.

The protocol was completed and approved in 2009, and the trial got underway at The University of Kansas Cancer Center before the end of the year. A few months later, in 2010, O'Dea was offered a position in the oncology department at Hays Medical Center.

This was also the year when Hays Medical Center (HMC) joined the Midwest Cancer Alliance (MCA), a network of hospitals, physicians and research organizations in Kansas and Western Missouri with a focus on improving access to clinical trials in rural areas. "Hays Medical Center was interested in aligning itself with institutions that could help provide the most current treatments available," explains Chief Medical Officer Larry Watts, M.D.

Thanks to the staff and resources of HMC's Dreiling/Schmidt Cancer Institute and its location in rural Kansas, the hospital had the ingredients needed to put the MCA mission - improving access to the latest trials and treatments - into action. "From day one Hays has been utilizing Midwest Cancer Alliance resources to benefit patients and staff," says Hope Krebill, executive director of the MCA.

In fact, soon after joining MCA, Hays Medical Center began to explore clinical trial options.  "With O'Dea on staff at the hospital and her involvement in the Abraxane/Herceptin protocol, the study she helped develop seemed like a perfect place to start," says Watts.

Once the trial was in place, staff at the Dreiling/Schmidt Cancer Institute began the process of screening cancer patients for eligibility. Study participants had to be women, at least 18 years of age, with Stage II or Stage III adenocarcinoma of the breast, an operable tumor, low HER-2 expression and meet several other criteria.

In June of 2012 Patty Currey, a recently retired speech and language pathologist, board member of the Humane Society of The High Plains and 35-year resident of Hays, had a mammogram that did not show any abnormalities. But when she went in to see Joel Fort, M.D., her gynecologist at Hays Medical Center in July, he was concerned about a 2cm sized lump that had appeared on her right breast. When further tests revealed a Stage III invasive ductal carcinoma, Fort referred Currey to O'Dea.

In early August Currey, O'Dea and Jo Klaus, the research nurse at HMC, discussed treatment options available at HMC, including the Abraxane/Herceptin trial available through the MCA. Currey talked over the options with her husband and ultimately decided that, if she qualified, she would participate in the trial, in addition to a lumpectomy and radiation treatment. "I committed to the trial because I wanted to do something that might help me and, possibly, a lot of other people, too," explains Currey.

By fall Currey was undergoing weekly chemotherapy that included the medications approved for the Abraxane/Herceptin clinical trial. Fortunately, because of Hays' membership in the MCA, Currey only had to drive 3 miles for treatment, not the 256 miles to Kansas City. "Cancer is stressful enough," says Currey. "It was a relief to be able to get great care and treatment right in my own community."

Currey completed her chemotherapy in January and tests indicated the tumor had shrunk to the point where no cancer cells were identified. Currey's lumpectomy took place at HMC in February and her radiation therapy is scheduled for March. According to O'Dea, Currey's prognosis looks excellent.

"Patty makes a real difference in our town. Just ask the students she's helped, her colleagues, neighbors and fellow Humane Society volunteers," says O'Dea. "Bringing major trials such as these to rural areas like Hays can have a huge impact. When we have the tools in our hometown to help patients like Patty survive, it not only benefits the person receiving care, it helps our whole community."

While Currey is nearing the end of her treatment, the trial continues for O'Dea. "We're trying to get more patients like Patty involved in these trials," says O'Dea. "Every day there is more research, and there are more options. We're going to keep looking for the best ways to help patients in Hays."

Last modified: Jul 26, 2018