The Camino de Santiago is an epic 500-mile pilgrimage to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, tracing the base of the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
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Seven years ago, the trek wasn’t even a fleeting thought for Laura Clausen, never mind presenting its first steps to her this year. In September, Laura and her daughter hiked 100 miles of the journey over two weeks. They assisted people in wheelchairs complete the journey as part of an inaugural, accessible Camino event inspired by the documentary and true-life story, I’ll Push You.
A melanoma survivor at age 63, Laura has already steadfastly climbed her own cancer journey-related peaks, and weathered the ups and downs of countless tests, procedures and treatments.
After her shift one day in 2012 as a surgical technologist in operating rooms at Stanford Hospital, the Palo Alto resident discovered a grape-sized lump on her neck. A prompt biopsy and CT scans revealed stage 4 melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer. One week later, she had surgery to remove the tumor in her neck and several cancerous lesions that had spread to her lungs and armpit region.
“Nothing can prepare you for the initial shock, disbelief, and grief,” says Laura, who underwent almost immediate courses of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, three surgeries, and interleukin 2 (a type of immunotherapy) to kill the cancerous cells. After no regression of her tumor, treatment with ipilimumab—a targeted therapy for melanoma and other cancers—was also ineffective in stopping the metastases from spreading.
Her oncologist at Stanford Hospital told Laura about a new clinical trial for people with advanced melanoma being offered at Sutter’s California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC). Study participants in the trial would receive an investigational, targeted immunotherapy called nivolumab to treat their cancer. At that time, CMPC was the only site in Northern California offering the trial.
“I had never dreamed that something so deadly could be happening to me,” says Laura. “I had exhausted all treatment options. Enrolling in the clinical trial presented a way for me to have some semblance of control, with the hope and proactive stance to reprogram my life in 10-day increments with each infusion.”
After similar clinical trials of the drug across the U.S. had positive results, nivolumab was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2014 for the treatment of melanoma. Marketed under the brand name Opdivo®, the drug’s tumor-shrinking effects prompted researchers worldwide to study it in other cancers, and similar FDA approvals followed over the next four years for treating cancers of the lung, colorectum, liver, bladder, and kidney, as well as Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“Targeted and immunotherapies offer exciting potential in improving outcomes for our patients,” says David Minor, MD, who enrolled Laura into the first clinical trial of nivolumab at CPMC. “We are committed to leading research that helps guide and inform the treatment path for patients like Laura whose cancers have been unresponsive to standard-of-care approaches.” Dr. Minor, Associate Director of CPMC’s Center for Melanoma Research and Treatment, is known nationwide for leading clinical trials of immunotherapy and targeted therapies for advanced and metastatic cancers.
Collaborating with CPMC oncologist and melanoma expert Kevin Kim, MD, Dr. Minor was stunned by Laura’s response to treatment. “After one year, Laura’s tumors disappeared. Because of the success of the drug nivolumab in treating Laura’s cancer and the cancer of other patients like her, the data from this trial led to FDA approval of the drug in 2014.
Since then, nivolumab has been approved for eight additional types of cancer, and has been life-saving for thousands of individuals,” says Dr. Minor. CPMC was a trial site for the pivotal study of nivolumab and was one of the top enrolling sites to the trial across Northern California.
Laura has remained symptom-free since 2014 and her tumors have continued to shrink. She comes to CPMC’s Pacific Heights campus for infusions of the drug every two weeks, and Dr. Kim monitors her response to therapy.
Laura has complemented her treatment with lifestyle changes including stress reduction, meditation, physical activity and dietary modifications. Reading positive affirmations daily and books such as Kelly Turner’s Radical Remission, The Nine Key Factors That Can Make a Real Difference have been a game-changer along the way.
“The most significant factor for me has been a desire to help others and to share my story,” says Laura. “When there is meaning in your life, you become full of peace overflowing to every aspect of your life and opening up endless possibilities.” Seven years ago, a clinical trial was one possibility that presented itself. Now, she has already seen the beautiful vistas of the Camino de Santiago.