BY WENDY HAAF
Eight years ago, Natalie Richardson was given a 26% chance of surviving the next five years. Today, she credits medical research for her ongoing survival
When Natalie Richardson was diagnosed with advanced melanoma at age 37, she didn’t fully grasp the gravity of her prognosis — until her medical oncologist broke the news that Richardson, a single mom whose twin daughters were then 11, likely wouldn’t see them graduate from high school.
“She explained that I had a 26 per cent chance of surviving five years if I did nothing, or 28 per cent if I did the treatment that was available at the time,” Richardson recalls of that day in 2014. “When I realized there were no other options, I panicked. We all panicked — my kids, my family. Everyone was just stunned.”
Roughly a month before that meeting, Richardson had been at her family doctor’s office with one of her daughters for a sore throat. “After her appointment, she said, ‘Mom, maybe you should show the doctor your mole,’” Richardson says. Over the previous six months, a beauty-mark-like mole on her hip, there since birth, had grown larger, changing shape and colour.
Busy with work and parenting, she’d put off having it checked. Richardson’s doctor sent her to have the mole removed and biopsied. After testing confirmed the presence of melanoma, she underwent a sentinel node biopsy, a surgical procedure to determine whether cancer has spread into the lymphatic system. In Natalie’s case, it had. CT scans further revealed a tumour on Richardson’s thyroid. Thankfully, this turned out to be a highly curable form of thyroid cancer.
But that was the only bit of good news. Richardson was stunned by the statistics her medical oncologist cited during that consultation in 2014 following the extensive operation to remove her lymph nodes. Desperate, Richardson asked the specialist, “Now what do we do?”
While this was indeed a dark moment, Richardson would soon learn ongoing research and drug development into serious cancers has led to more options than patients before her would have had.
In consultation with her oncologist, Richardson opted to enroll in a drug trial testing a new treatment that was already well along in the development process. “People have been working on these solutions for a long time,” she says, “and I trust this process.”
The process of developing medications is complex and can take 12 to 15 years. It starts with research to better understand a disease itself: for instance, the sequence of biological steps in the body that contribute to the development of a serious disease. Each of these steps represents a possible point of interruption. It’s a bit like the board game Mousetrap - block or reposition one piece, and you may be able to change the course of the disease, or even stop it in its tracks. From there, scientists develop molecules that zero in on one of these ‘targets of interest.’
Medical researchers then painstakingly shepherd potential new treatments through a sequence of carefully designed studies to ensure they are safe and effective before Canadian physicians can prescribe them to patients. These important clinical trials take many years to complete before a drug reaches a patient, as the medicine must pass rigorous testing and it must demonstrate a significant benefit while not causing intolerable side effects.