There are certain cancers for which, despite extensive trials and research, average survival outcomes go unchanged. Kim Speaker has one of those cancers.
Just a few days before Christmas 2014, Speaker and her family learned that the numbness in her face, coordination issues and recent seizure were caused by two large masses in her brain. Only a few days later, she started the recommended treatment for patients with the aggressive brain cancer glioblastoma multiforme.
Surgery is done to remove tumors, but even with chemotherapy and radiation treatment, glioblastoma multiforme typically results in death within the first 15 months after diagnosis, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
Speaker recently celebrated her 20th month in remission. She credits her care at UCHealth Cancer Center in Fort Collins and Optune, a noninvasive treatment that’s attached to her head for 18 hours a day. Her doctors also give credit to Speaker’s fighting attitude and drive.
Optune is a device made by Novocure, an oncology company. Wired patches called transducer arrays are strategically placed on Speaker’s scalp, and they send alternating electric fields across the upper part of her brain in different directions, zapping dividing cancer cells.
Speaker was the first UCHealth patient in northern Colorado to use Optune. Only a month before her diagnosis, the Federal Drug Administration approved the device for people recently diagnosed with glioblastoma. Prior to that, only patients with recurrent glioblastoma who had exhausted radiation and chemotherapy options qualified.
“There is always that issue of efficacy with a new treatment, but so far that has been encouraging,” said Dr. Joshua Petit, Speaker’s radiation oncologist with UCHealth. “We have learned from her experience that, in general, patients must be committed to using it. Kim is highly compliant. What we are learning is that with cutting-edge, high-quality treatments we can see long-term survivors in our program [of glioblastoma]. That is a reality today.”
Speaker’s extended remission has allowed her and her family to move into a new phase of their lives, said Speaker’s husband, Cody.
“It’s been a crazy ride, but we feel like things are more normal,” he said. “At least we’ve tried to make them as normal as possible.”
Speaker still has to wear her Optune device for 18 hours a day, and she gets an MRI every three months to make sure her cancer hasn’t returned.
About every three days, Cody and Speaker start their routine of changing the arrays. First Cody removes the stubble from his wife’s head. Then he strategically positions the four patches on her scalp to best target her cancer. Cody has mastered it now that he’s done it so many times, and it takes only minutes before he’s braiding the cords down Speaker’s back and plugging them into a small device that fits into a special purse-like bag.
Speaker started out with a much larger Optune machine that fit in a backpack. Although she was still able to get around and take care of her Rocky Mountain Rexes feline breeding business, the weight of the pack stressed her back and shoulders.
Speaker is thrilled with the new, lightweight design of Optune, as it has allowed her to do other things, such as enjoy a tandem bike with Cody.
“I just sit on the back and hold on for dear life,” she joked.
It’s also been nice when she’s training her new service dog in training, a standard poodle named Omni, that helps Speaker with balance, since the cancer affected the right side of her body.
This summer, Speaker participated in the Denver Brain Tumor Walk and visited her best friend and fellow feline breeder in Arizona. More recently, she was recognized as a cancer survivor at a Denver Broncos game through UCHealth’s partnership with the NFL team. She also attended the Colorado Avalanche “Hockey Fights Cancer” game as part of UCHealth’s partnership with the NHL team.
“Speaker has been doing exceptionally well with her glioblastoma,” said Dr. Lars Widdel, Speaker’s neurosurgeon with UCHealth. “She is reaching the two-year mark since her diagnosis and initial surgery, which only about 15 percent of patients with this diagnosis achieve. It is very likely that the use of Optune is a big factor in this. Using this device is very labor intensive on the patient, and there are not many patients who have been able to be as diligent in making sure they use this device as consistently as Speaker has. It really shows her fighting spirit.”