Patient story: I haven't had any new cancers

It’s been 11 years since Clara Harris was diagnosed with kidney cancer; more than 10 years since she had radiation for brain and bone tumors; nine-and-a-half years since she was treated with interleukin-2 immunotherapy to rid her body of the cancer.

And it’s been one year since Harris welcomed her first grandchild.

To say that the 66-year-old has defied the odds is an understatement. Only 5 to 15 percent of people diagnosed with metastatic kidney cancer live past five years. Harris’ survival story was already remarkable in 2009, when we featured her story in Providence Together magazine (“Tumor treatment’s changing landscape”).

At the time, she had recently undergone stereotactic body radiation therapy, or SBRT, for an inoperable tumor in her chest. The powerful new technology delivers high doses of radiation with pinpoint precision, sparing the surrounding healthy tissue. It also alters the tumor’s cells, making it easier for the body’s immune system to recognize and kill the cancer.

Since that story was published, Harris has had only good news to report.

“I haven’t had any new cancers,” she says from the Woodburn home she shares with her husband, Ralph, a retired railroad worker. And, “We have a grandson who if I hadn’t lived, I never would have met.”

Her spirits today are a stark contrast from the difficult days of multiple treatments for cancer that had spread to her lungs, brain and her bones, which grew so weak that her hip and clavicle snapped. Interleukin-2, which has dramatic success rates for a small segment of patients, was the hardest therapy to endure because of the immune response it unleashed.

After a treatment sent her to the intensive care unit for the second time, “I remember telling Dr. [John] Smith that I couldn’t do any more,” Harris recalls. “He said, ‘Yes, I think you are right.’” Still, Harris was among the fortunate patients who seemed to respond to IL-2, and the difficult therapy is one reason she is alive today.

Harris’ treatments came before the promising research by Steven Seung, M.D., Ph.D.Brendan Curti, M.D., and Marka Crittenden, M.D., Ph.D., that pairs SBRT with IL-2 in a one-two cancer-fighting punch, but she benefited from both therapies nonetheless.

Today she’s knitting lap robes and scarves for charity, tending to her garden, and spending time with her husband, children and 1-year-old grandson, Andrew. The once-frequent visits to her oncologist have slowed to checkups and scans every six months.

In the meantime, she’s living day to day. “And that’s the way we should live anyway.”