Three years ago, Pam Kohl was told she might not live to see today. The director of the Komen Metastatic Breast Cancer Research Initiative learned in late 2016 that her breast cancer had returned and spread. Thanks to new treatments and research, she’s living longer and stronger.
When a new tumor showed up on her hip, Kohl and her doctors turned to a treatment less common than radiation and chemotherapy, one that is virtually pain-free.
“Our treatments are very gentle. They’re minimally invasive. We are able to do them with sedation, and patients are out the door the same day for most of our treatments,” said Dr. Alan Sag, Duke interventional radiologist.
Sag is literally freezing away a tumor in Kohl’s hip bone. It’s called cryoablation.
“I was able to access the tumor, take a piece of it and then destroy the tumor with ice,” he said. The whole thing took about 90 minutes.
Kohl stayed awake during the procedure, felt no pain, had no stitches – and no side effects like the such as nausea and fatigue that come with radiation.
“It’s a whole different experience,” she said, “quite pleasant compared to going through radiation.”
Another important benefit with cryoablation, compared to radiation, is that Kohl can stay on her oral chemotherapy to continually help keep the tumors from returning.
Cryoablation is not experimental. “What we’re using is a mature technology,” Sag said. “It is a very important part of what we offer patients whose cancer has spread to the bone when they’re treated at Duke.”
Advances in treatment are coming as Kohl has outlived the original life expectancy given with her diagnosis. When she was diagnosed 36 months ago, she was given 28 months to live.
“I feel very grateful for the wonderful care I get here in the Triangle,” she said. “I am grateful that the research is what has enabled this.”
Now, three years after that horrifying news, she’s relatively healthy, fighting each new tumor as it comes. She’s even joining a YMCA program to help cancer patients build strength.
“I know that I will have chemo and it will get harder, but as long as I can stay healthy and stay strong, as I get to the point where I need other chemo, that’s only going to be a good thing,” Kohl said. “I want to hit that next treatment stronger.”
She finds inspiration in others on the same road.
“I’ve met so many amazing women who are 5 years, 6 years (post-diagnosis). I know a woman who is 21 years. She’s been through 14 different treatments,” Kohl said.
She points to clinical trials that continue to give her hope.
“I know several labs right here in the Triangle that are working on some important things that could save my life and certainly save a lot of other people right here in North Carolina,” she said.