Meet Tomma Hargraves
A clinical trial saved her life 14 years ago.
Now, she helps others survive the disease.
At a time when surviving metastatic lung cancer was extremely rare, Tomma Hargraves courageously joined a clinical trial to defy all odds. Today, she is thriving.
Tomma, a speech pathologist with a penchant for golf, was coming up on a routine doctor’s appointment when she noticed a small bump in her neck. She was healthy and had no reason to think it was cause for concern, but she mentioned it to her doctor anyway. Fortunately, her doctor ordered a biopsy to play it safe. Days later, Tomma received her diagnosis: stage 3B lung cancer. The cancer was in her right lung and had already spread to a lymph node—the little bump she had felt in her neck.
Tomma’s son, an emergency medical physician, urged her to find a teaching hospital where she could benefit from the latest treatments. She interviewed multiple doctors before she found a doctor at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center who was conducting a research study—an aggressive clinical trial using a targeted drug, high doses of radiation and chemotherapy. She said she believed enrolling in the trial would offer her the best chance of survival.
Enduring Treatment, Twice
Unquestionably, the treatment was grueling, but Tomma persevered. Radiation caused inflammation in her esophagus and permanent lung damage, but the cancer was gone after nine months. For three years, remission allowed her body to recover.
However, the cancer came back, and Tomma once again endured chemotherapy, radiation and targeted therapy to treat tumors in her lymph nodes and brain. Then, a brain scan revealed another suspicious mass. Not taking any chances, she boldly opted for a craniotomy to remove the mass, which turned out to be scar tissue.
Recognizing the Progress Made by Cancer Research
Now, 14 years in remission, Tomma recognizes the importance of research and the incremental progress scientists are making every day. Most of the participants in Tomma’s clinical trial did not have positive outcomes. However, years later, researchers learned the treatment was effective for patients with a specific genetic mutation. Though she didn’t know it at the time, Tomma later found out that she had the mutation, which explains why the treatment was able to save her life.
I am a firm believer in clinical trials and encourage patients to participate. Research is the key to progress. And we need scientists to include geriatric patients in trials to learn even more.
Like many survivors, Tomma experienced “survivor’s guilt.” Taking her hairdresser’s advice, she decided to channel that feeling into something productive. After her retirement, she found a new passion volunteering as a patient navigator. This gives her a first-hand view of today’s life-saving cancer therapies and an appreciation for the team-based approach that brings oncologists, surgeons, nurses and other specialists together to improve the experience of patients with cancer.
As an integral part of that care team, Tomma shares valuable insights as a woman who defeated cancer and continues to thrive with her “Don’t Ever Give Up!” spirit.