Clara’s story first appeared in La Opinion. To read the original article in Spanish, click here.
Clara Salas has always been an independent working woman, dedicated to taking care of her 4 children. She’s also a single mom. Then, two years ago she received a devastating blow. In mid-2017 she was diagnosed with diabetes, but feeling terrible by the end of the year, she went back to the doctor.
“He told me my diabetes was getting worse and apart from that, they found some small masses in my right breast.” Remembers Salas who is 41 years old. “He had me do a mammogram after an ultrasound and the following morning he called to confirm I had cancer.” Perplexed, Salas said she could no longer listen as the doctor continued to explain her diagnosis.
“I only thought about what would happen to my 4 kids,” said Salas, originally from Peru. “I wanted to know what stage I was and what I could do.”
The doctors eventually told her breast cancer was stage 4 and it was in her arm, armpit and right breast.
The tragic news that came in May of 2018 caused Salas to lose her job and her home.
“Throughout June I was taking chemo twice a month. It was strong but the doctor said I was young, and I could stand it.” I remember after the first round of chemo, my hair started falling out. By the second round, all my hair fell out. Then came the eyebrows,” said Salas. “I was homeless, not working and caring for my kids, one of whom has autism. I all happened so quickly and was very difficult.”
Through these difficult times, Salas and her kids stayed in hotels temporarily.
Determined to Recover
Salas says little by little she started to pick herself up. She wasn’t accustomed to asking for help from the government, but she knew she needed to get food stamps, financial help and eventually a place to live.
In November, 2018, Salas has surgery to remove the tumors.
“It was so painful, physically and emotionally. It’s so traumatic to look in the mirror and have nothing there. The surgical incision begins in the middle of my breast and goes across my back.” She said with a broken voice.
Her only joy is that despite having lost a breast and having the indelible scar, the love of her children drives her to keep fighting.
“My son who is autistic sees everything as normal and is only 7 told me, ‘Oh mama, you don’t have [a breast] anymore’, and since I have a prosthesis, he just says, ‘put it on, put it on!” She said, more encouraged.
The single mom says after her operation, she began to be part of a program of the Lazarex Cancer Foundation, dedicating to finding clinical trials with medicine and treatments for cancer patients.
The doctors put a device in my arm to detect any changes in the cancer, then they left them there in case the disease returned they could detect it.
Fortunately, Salas had a good reaction to the clinical trials that they initially offered her and eventually she was able to receive radiation.
“Around March 20 I finished radiation which is worse than chemo,” she said. “It leaves you feeling like a mound of live flesh, and my throat was burned. I lost about 40 pounds with the radiation. It’s horrible.”
Even though she is not fully cured, Salas only needs to continue periodic visits to make sure the tumors don’t return.
From Bad to Worse
When everything seemed to be a question of time to recover, she had some recent hemorrages that complicated things.
“The doctor told me that they were going to do a diagnostic test to see if the cancer had spread to my ovaries or not; they were considering removing them because they produce estrogen which helps the cancer grow.” Salas says.
“A mother does what she must do for her children, and even though my mom lives here with us, we can’t do much to help her.”
Salas says the fight isn’t over and for now she will continue maintenance therapy. Her biggest fear is leaving her kids, ages 22, 15, 13 and 7 and two helpless grandkids without family and without support here in this country.
Clara Salas is part of the IMPACT program (Improving Patient Access to Cancer Clinical Trials). The intent is to transform the system of clinical trials and make them more accessible to patients.
Dana Dornsife, Founder of Lazarex, explaines that through this program, cancer patients who qualify have all their costs related to transportation and stay paid – including a companion – when they attend clinical trials.
“For example, if someone lives in Las Vegas and wants to participate in a clinical trial in Los Angeles, we provide assistance and reimburse them for the cost of the travel. Costs that usually are not reimbursed by clinical trials sponsors,” explained Dornsife.
It’s estimated that only 5% of patients with cancer take advantage of advanced treatment – a fraction of them are minorities –due to the travel costs to reach them.
USC Norris Cancer Center in Los Angeles is one of the first cancer centers in the country to have the IMPACT program. It also exists in San Francisco. A pilot program for IMPACT at Harvard in Massachusetts had exciting results.
The IMPACT program is an alternative for those who may be toward the end of the fight against cancer, but perhaps a clinical trial could be the solution.
Dornsife said a patient stays in a clinical trial for about one year. “But in many cases when patients respond well, it buys them more time,” explained Dornsife.
If they can fully enroll clinical trials with success, it significantly increases the possibilities of developing new treatments and therapies for all cancer patients.
Patients who enroll in clinical trials are usually refered by their doctors.
To learn more about the IMPACT program, visit: https://lazarex.org/