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Published on September 27, 2018

Joann Heesch

New Lung Cancer Trial Gives Great-Grandmother Hope

Friends asked Joann Heesch why she didn’t seek medical care at a larger health system when she was diagnosed two years ago with stage IV lung cancer.

Her answer was, “Why?”

“Both my doctors came from Mayo and they’re here now,” Heesch said. “I’m so glad I chose to stay here.”

Heesch has the added benefit of being the first enrolled in a new international clinical trial for patients diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer.

The trial is an example of the advanced medicine available at Avera and the role providers are playing to ensure better outcomes for patients in the region.

“We’re doing this trial at Avera that is available at a handful larger cancer centers,” said Heidi McKean, MD, Avera Medical Group medical oncologist. “It’s an amazing opportunity for our patients to even be eligible for this trial. This trial is just going to explode and lead to other opportunities for patients.”

When approached about the trying the trial to continue managing her cancer, Heesch didn’t hesitate.

“I’m praying that it helps me but more importantly that it helps others in the future,” she said.

‘We needed a new idea’

The SPRING trial, which stands for Survival Prolongation by Rationale Innovative Genomics, is a three-drug protocol that incorporates immunotherapy and two other targeted therapies. All patients are given the same drug combination and their response rates will be tracked.

As a patient with stage IV cancer it must be treated more like a chronic condition with the goal of controlling the cancer. Heesch was on standard chemotherapy and later an immunotherapy treatment before both stopped being effective. She started having trouble breathing and scans indicated the cancer had spread in her lungs and into the liver and spleen.

“For Joann the problem was that the cancer was growing through chemotherapy and immunotherapy, so we needed a new idea and that’s where the SPRING trial comes in,” McKean said. “Using a new combination of targeted treatment with immunotherapy is important because as cancer grows it continues to mutate and get harder to treat. Using a combination approach actually makes a lot of sense, and hopefully will be effective for her.”

Changing How Lung Cancer Is Treated

Ben Solomon, MD, Avera Medical Group medical oncologist, is the lead investigator for the study at Avera. The trial is Avera’s latest collaboration as part of its membership with the Worldwide Innovative Networking (WIN) Consortium with more to come.

“Our hope is that the SPRING trial will lead to a paradigm shift in how we treat lung cancer and how we manage those diagnosed with it,” Solomon said.

So far, Heesch is responding well. She’s happy for the chance to manage her disease as long as possible.

“I’ll continue this until it doesn’t work anymore and we’ll go from there,” Heesch said. “My family and faith help me stay positive. We go day by day. God has a plan, it just isn’t the same plan as I’d like. He’s been gracious to me. I’m 80 years old with a loving husband of 62 years, six children, 17 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.”

Live Better. Live Balanced. Avera.

Avera is a health ministry rooted in the Gospel. Our mission is to make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.

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