One Woman's Trial
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By Todd Dvorak

One Woman's Trial

Darlene Schwandke has never wasted time—especially when it came to joining a clinical study

By Todd Dvorak


By nature, Darlene Schwandke is impatient, decisive and strong-willed—a woman who quickly embraces new ideas. It’s evident in her take-charge spirit, which injects a sense of urgency into so many aspects of her life, from her rapid-fire speech to her decision a decade ago to quit smoking cigarettes.

It shows, too, in the immaculate, orderly appearance of the ranch-style home she shares with her husband, John, in Muscatine, a Mississippi River town in southeast Iowa.

And in so many ways, those traits paid extraordinary dividends in her time of crisis.

In June 2000, a month after she was diagnosed with non–small cell lung cancer and had her left lung removed, tests showed Schwandke’s cancer had metastasized, creating tumors in her neck and groin. Experts at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., drew the same conclusion: stage IV terminal cancer.

But oncologist Alex Adjei, at the time on staff at the Mayo Clinic, told Schwandke he was seeking patients for a phase I clinical trial of a new drug. Her instincts kicked in. Despite the potential risks and side effects, she made up her mind to enroll before hopping in the car that day for the four-hour trip home.

“I’m an impatient person,” says Schwandke, now 61. “And I had already been thinking about drug trials as an option. … On the way home from the clinic that day, I remember saying to John that at the very least, participating would also make me feel good because if it didn’t help me, I may be helping someone else.”

For Schwandke’s husband, the drug trial offered the first hint of optimism in months.

“We felt like we could start using that word again—hope,” he says. “For so long, we felt like we were in a rowboat, rowing upstream.”

In dozens of hospitals and research centers across the country, clinical trials are conducted to test cancer therapies before they’re submitted to federal regulators for approval. In phase I trials, like Adjei’s, researchers study a small number of patients to determine an appropriate frequency and dose for administering a drug, while monitoring side effects. Larger phase II and phase III trials evaluate the drug’s effectiveness and safety, and determine whether it offers a benefit over existing treatments.



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