For years, Sara worked in a hospital, making care possible for others. Now, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she was the one in need of care.
Sara Tardy worked at Duke University Medical Center as an onboarding specialist in the respiratory care department. Every day, she onboarded healthcare professionals at the hospital, never realizing that soon she would be on the receiving end of healthcare. Until one day in 2002, she received an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis.
“I never actually had breast-related symptoms or pain. I just felt tired and run down, and I didn’t have any energy to get through the day,” she said reflecting on her symptoms before the diagnosis. After a series of routine procedures and tests to investigate the source of her fatigue, charts showed that Sara’s white blood cell count was dangerously high, indicating that her body was fiercely fighting an unidentified infection. Despite no known family history of cancer, mammogram scans found calcifications in her right breast and a biopsy soon confirmed stage three HER2-positive breast cancer.
“If you could say it was fortunate, my breast cancer type had more available treatment options, so my doctors were hopeful for positive outcomes,” said Sarah. In addition to standard radiation, another treatment option was available — a clinical trial for Herceptin, at that time an investigational chemotherapy for HER2-positive breast cancer. Sara credits her natural bend to research and exposure to clinical research in a previous role for her willingness to participate in the trial.
“A lot of people don’t understand how clinical research works. In a situation like mine, some people assume that you either receive the investigative drug or nothing [the placebo]. What those people don’t realize is that you continue to receive the standard of care while participating in the trial,” she asserted. “It’s not either or and you’re not going to miss out on care, but the doctors are adding to it to see if the new therapy will be helpful.”
Now 18 years later, Sara is in remission and has displayed no signs of cancer during her annual visits. In this same period, Herceptin was approved by the FDA as the standard of care for HER2+ breast cancer and other cancer indications. In contrast, however, Sara learned and experienced the disappointing consequences of silencing medical diagnoses and histories. Her mother opted against medical guidance to receive a hysterectomy and later was diagnosed with cancer that metastasized, reached her liver and eventually took her life. “Because she was afraid of dealing with it, my mom ignored it and she is no longer with us,” Sara said.
Not only was her mother’s passing difficult but also later learning of family members who died from cancer added to her frustration. “There was cancer history in my family that I knew nothing about, including an aunt who died from breast cancer. We were like many families, especially in the Black community. We didn’t talk about our medical history and if anyone died from cancer, nobody talked about it,” said Sara. “If I had known, I would have been proactive and been screened earlier.”
Despite these challenges, Sara is thankful for what she calls, her “healing” and was inspired to pursue a career path in clinical research. As a senior initiation clinical research associate, she is responsible for helping clinical trial sites prepare for a successful study start-up. Today, she advocates for families talking openly about their medical histories and issues and simplifying the clinical trial experience for patients. “Sometimes the patient becomes just a number and we forget they are a human-being, a parent, a child or someone with a job, aspirations, and a life. I take those memories from me being in a clinical trial and put it into how I approach my studies,” she said. “I’m very passionate about research and hope that improvements will continue to be made throughout the clinical trial process.”