A Trooper in the Cancer Fight
Regina Kelder

A Trooper in the Cancer Fight

Faced with a difficult prognosis, registered nurse Carla Jenkins looks to research for a reprieve in her battle with cancer. First in our Eureka Moments series. 

Carla Jenkins has always wanted to drive a fully-loaded 707 horsepower Dodge Challenger down the highway. Her older brother, who loved fast cars, died behind the wheel of a 1969 Challenger 28 years ago, at the age of 23, but somehow that does not dissuade the 45-year-old single mother from coveting one as well.

The wish to drive one now sits atop a bucket list that includes sky diving with her 21-year-old daughter, Emily, and 18-year-old son, Austen, and a family vacation to Hawaii.

Carla’s aunt, Betty Thierer, a Charles River employee, suggested Carla make the list after she received the news that every patient fighting cancer fears: There is nothing more we can do. We recommend palliative care.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. When a Pap smear found the early stage cancer in her cervix two years ago, Carla underwent a hysterectomy and was told there was only a 5 percent chance the cancer would return. Five months later she started having intolerable pain and it took another eight months and a different doctor to nail down the reason. The cancer had returned and spread. She began aggressive chemotherapy every three weeks for four months and she was briefly in remission but a PET scan last month revealed that the cancer was, once again, on the move.

The chemotherapy cocktails, whose side effects caused almost constant nausea and debilitating headaches lasting up to five days, had failed to stop the cancer from spreading. Without a clinical trial, and perhaps even with one, her time is limited.

Eyeing a clinical trial

But Carla is not giving up. She is confident of the work that medicine can do. She remembers how her tumor pain all but vanished after the first round of chemo injections. One drug in particular, Avastin, which she began taking as a maintenance drug after her standard chemotherapy treatments wrapped up last summer, has helped keep her alive. 

And so, while she busies herself with the difficult life decisions that terminal patients must confront and continues to work as long as she can, Carla is also trying to get clearance from her insurance company to join a clinical trial at the University of Chicago, perhaps one focused on immunotherapy, a strategy that harnesses our own immune cells to fight cancer and has rescued patients that otherwise would have died.

The cancer diagnosis has been life-changing for her. Before her diagnosis, Carla, a registered nurse at an acute care hospital in Peoria, had a hard time taking care of patients with cancer. She never quite knew what to say. Cancer has made her more empathetic toward them, more inclined to talk about the disease and fight for solutions. She is proud of people like her Aunt Betty, whose job at a Charles River Avian Services facility in Roanoke, Illinois, contributes to biomedical research. (Betty’s site cleans and ships SPF eggs to manufacturers for vaccine research and production.)

‘Research matters’

Last summer, when her niece was really struggling, Betty sat down and looked up all the drugs Carla was taking. She was surprised and touched to learn that the company she was working for had tested most of them. This knowledge connected her to Carla in a way she hadn’t thought of until then.

“It’s important to let people like my aunt know that the work they do really does make a difference at the end,” says Carla.

Looking ahead, Carla is relying on her strong Lutheran faith to get her through this difficult time. She is concerned for her children’s future, possibly without her: Emily, a nursing student at St. Francis College of Nursing, Austen, who is graduating this May and has enlisted in the U.S. Marines, 15-year-old Allison, a freshman in high school, and her youngest, Alexis, age 10, in fifth grade.

“Someday we will all die, Snoopy” Charlie Brown says from the dock of the bay.  And Snoopy replies, “Yes, but on all other days we will live.”

Carla shares this exchange because, in its simplicity, it sums up how she feels: Family, faith, a bucket list, and a hope for a medical miracle.