A clinical trial for lung cancer at the University of Colorado Cancer Center saved Betty Moren’s life. Now Betty and her husband, Bill, are giving back, sharing their cancer journey and clinical trial experiences as patient advocates at the cancer center’s Thoracic Oncology Research Initiative (TORI), which brings together investigators from multiple departments and centers across the CU Anschutz Medical Campus to advance lung cancer research.
“Bill and Betty remind us what we are fighting for, since Betty is still dealing with the daily life of treatment,” says TORI director Sharon Pine, PhD. “Our patient advocates help us to understand the patient perspective and guide us in how what we are doing might be perceived by patients or how it might impact them.”
The Morens began sitting in on TORI meetings at the beginning of 2023, putting a human face on lung cancer treatment and providing a patient perspective on the initiative’s grant applications. Bill — a product manager for aerospace company Boeing — even created a PowerPoint presentation about his wife’s lung cancer experience to share with the researchers. Among the statistics he highlighted were the 900 tests Betty has had over the years, as well as her two rounds of radiation therapy, 20 emergency room visits, and 10 hospitalizations.
Betty Moren had a surprise birthday party at the UCHealth infusion center in Lone Tree.
“After he did the presentation, a lot of researchers came up to me and said, ‘Wow, we didn’t know everything you’ve been through. We look in a petri dish all day,’” Betty says. “It was really good for them to hear about my story and get some perspective as to why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
A stage 4 diagnosis
Betty’s lung cancer journey began early in 2017, soon after the couple moved from Massachusetts to Castle Rock, Colorado, so Bill could take the job with Boeing. A particularly painful recurrence of the chest and back spasms Betty had endured for months took her to the emergency room, where a CT scan revealed a mass in her right lung. A few days later she got the diagnosis: stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer. She was told she had six to nine months to live.
The Morens came to the CU Cancer Center for treatment. There were no surgical options, oncologists told the couple, but they started Betty on chemotherapy in hopes of shrinking the tumor and stopping the disease’s progression.
“The standard of care was a traditional chemo drug called carboplatin, plus another chemo drug called pemetrexed,” Bill explains. “She started that right away, and it was effective, but it was a very tough treatment. She ended up having a couple of hospitalizations for neutropenic fevers, and she even set the record at our local hospital with a 106.7-degree fever.”
Clinical trial to the rescue
Betty stayed on a maintenance dose of chemotherapy for another year, until it began to affect her kidneys. An immunotherapy drug worked for two years after that, until it began losing its effectiveness. Betty’s oncologist began looking for clinical trials and found one — a drug called sacituzumab govitecan (Trodelvy) that was being investigated by CU Cancer Center Ross Camidge, MD, PhD.
“Our oncologist at the time had actually picked a different trial initially,” Bill says. “Trodelvy was plan B. We had gone through the biopsies, all the paperwork, the blood tests, and all the screening for the plan A drug, and about two weeks before Betty was going to start the trial, it got shut down. We had to quickly go to plan B, which in retrospect was a blessing, because it's done so well."
Betty Moren with her dog Bailey.
That plan B has now kept Betty’s disease under control for more than two years. She gets an infusion two out of every three weeks, dosed with a targeted chemotherapy drug that works by delivering a big dose of the chemotherapy to cancer cells that express a specific marker and a much lower dose to normal cells that don’t have the marker.
“It’s what you might call smart chemotherapy,” says Camidge, who is now Betty’s oncologist. “It’s the kind of chemo we’ve wanted, as opposed to the chemo we’ve had for decades.”
Betty benefited from receiving her care at the CU Cancer Center, Camidge says, where clinical trials are a major part of the treatment arsenal.
“There are a gazillion clinical trials out there, and not all of them make sense for a specific patient,” he says. “But over the past two decades, we’ve learned how to pick the winners early. We’re offering people access to treatments we think have a reasonable chance of being the new standard of care, years before they’re widely available.”
‘The happiest I’ve ever been’
Betty’s new treatment is not without its side effects — it turns out the marker the drug targets on the cancer cells is also found in hair follicles, so she is now bald. She also suffers from nausea, fatigue, and vertigo, but paradoxically, she says she’s the happiest she’s ever been. She’s being treated by a dedicated team that includes one of the most-respected lung cancer doctors in the world, she has a new appreciation for her good health, and she has an important role representing other lung cancer patients who are currently part of or will be part of clinical trials. She has even created a line of greeting cards for people with serious cancer diagnoses. They are sold at businesses in Castle Rock, including the AdvenHealth Hospital, and Betty sells them online as well. Proceeds go to fund lung cancer research at the CU Cancer Center.
Betty in the studio where she creates her greeting cards.
“Betty and Bill are an inspiring couple, devoted to each other,” Pine says. “They remind us of the importance of hope, the need to see each patient individually, and that we should be more transparent about the research being done on our campus.”
Featured image: Bill and Betty Moren create ribbons for the White Ribbon Project, an initiative to raise awareness about lung cancer.