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Family and Community Helped This Woman Overcome Two Terminal Cancer Diagnoses

Publication: The Dallas Morning News

By: David Buise

Hope and science. Both are crucial to fighting cancer. Just ask Dallas accountant Rhonda Jenkins, who faced and overcame not one, but two terminal cancer diagnoses.

Thanks to recent advances in cancer treatment and Rhonda’s own fortitude, she has not only survived but, at age 63, she continues to work full-time and aims to inspire courage in others.

Rhonda first suspected she might have health problems 12 years ago, at age 51. A painful lump under her left arm prompted her to see her doctor, who ordered a mammogram. With no previous test result for comparison, Rhonda was told to wait and then come back for a follow-up.

“I felt it couldn’t be breast cancer because there is no history of breast cancer in our family,” Rhonda said.

Despite the persistent and growing pain, Rhonda gritted her teeth and endured four months of uncertainty before getting a follow-up mammogram. In October 2005, she underwent a lumpectomy.

But the surgery revealed numerous tumors, large and small, in the left breast and under her left arm. Tissue sample analysis led to a breast cancer diagnosis. Rhonda’s cancer was also found to be HER-2 positive, which indicated that it was a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer. A scheduled mastectomy was canceled when a CT scan revealed the cancer had spread to Rhonda’s lungs, liver and spine, meaning it had become stage 4 cancer.

Shocked and despondent, Rhonda was referred to Dr. Christopher Stokoe, a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology—Plano East. His assessment: Because the cancer had spread from her breasts to so many vital organs, neither surgery nor radiation was feasible. Rhonda’s only option for survival was chemotherapy, which she reluctantly agreed to undergo.

“There were a lot of tears as he explained the options,” Rhonda said. “Dr. Stokoe knew he could possibly extend my time through chemotherapy, but couldn’t predict for how long.”

The intense treatment took an emotional and physical toll. With her hope for survival waning, Rhonda had no desire to join a support group or even partake in simple activities like reading magazines. “Why bother? What’s the point?” she thought.

After five weeks of chemotherapy left her feeling sick and exhausted, Rhonda wanted to forgo further treatment. But her husband, Chester, urged her to fight on.

“He told me, ‘Don’t stop. You can get through this,’” Rhonda said. “He said all I have to do is stay alive until they find a cure.”

Reluctantly, she agreed to additional treatment, and for a while, she felt hopeful — and for good reason.

Her tumors shrank and the pain subsided — but not for long. In November 2006, physicians found several tumors in the left lobe of her liver, which led to two and a half years of additional chemotherapy. Although the tumors shrank, they did not disappear.

Surgeons removed the left lobe of Rhonda’s liver in December 2008, but in February 2009, 14 additional tumors were found in the remaining portion of that organ. Once again, Rhonda was facing a terminal diagnosis. Her doctors estimated she had about six months to live.

But a ray of hope emerged in the form of a clinical trial. Dr. Stokoe told Rhonda about TDM-1, now approved by the FDA and known as Kadcyla. Back then, however, it was an experimental hybrid treatment consisting of a combination of drugs, including Herceptin.

“I have always been deathly afraid of clinical trials ever since I started chemotherapy,” Rhonda said. “I didn’t want to do it, but Dr. Stokoe encouraged me that participating could help prolong my life, and even the lives of others.”

Rhonda agreed to treatment and was admitted to the clinical trial in 2009. Since that time, her condition has steadily improved. Because of the treatment’s relatively mild side effects, Rhonda didn’t lose her hair and was able to continue working full-time. Today, she is in remission and continues to receive chemotherapy with Kadcyla every three weeks.

“Rhonda likes to share the message of hope and participation in clinical trials,” Dr. Stokoe said. “The opportunity to have state-of-the-art research in a community setting allowed her to be home with her husband and to receive treatment that has kept her alive.”

Having twice survived a terminal diagnosis, Rhonda feels incredibly blessed, despite the knowledge that there is always a chance of a recurrence. Though her husband Chester is fighting his own battle with Parkinson’s disease, the couple looks forward to spending many more years together.

Looking back at the struggles she’s endured since her initial diagnosis in 2005, Rhonda is feeling thankful to be living a normal life once again.

“I have my life back,” she said. “I no longer consider myself as having terminal cancer.”

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