Eight-year-old Jameisha Brown may not have known the clinical terms for her cancer or its treatment, but thanks to her innate curiosity and the frequent, simple explanations of her care team, she understood her adversary.
That understanding empowered her, she says. Cancer wasn’t a nameless, faceless monster. It was a disease that clinical research would help her fight.
“Meisha,” as friends and family call her, began her battle with cancer in June 1998 during the summer after second grade. She’d lost her energy and had begun vomiting. Her mother took her to the pediatrician who felt a mass in her abdomen and immediately ordered tests. Within hours Meisha was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare, aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s disease typically found in children.
Just three days after diagnosis, Meisha underwent emergency surgery at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. More surgeries and chemotherapy followed.
The doctors, nurses and residents caring for Meisha explained the situation to her. They described her cancer, demonstrated procedures on a teddy bear and drew pictures on a dry-erase board. “They used Clifford books and my Barney puppet to explain the various types of chemo and what the colors meant,” she says. Although her understanding was child-like, it was comprehensive. “I learned about platelets, transfusions, nutra cells and what type of blood I was getting. I think I understood everything about cancer from a child’s perspective maybe even better than my parents did.”
After three months of standard-of-care treatment, Meisha continued to struggle. Her doctor wanted to start her on a combination chemotherapy regimen that had proven successful in adults, but was not yet approved for use in children. As always, her care team took the time to explain everything to her and her parents.
“I knew it was research because it wasn’t talked about in the same way as the other drugs,” she recalls. “The doctors weren’t saying, ‘we can expect this,’ or ‘this has been proven with that.’ With this treatment they were saying, ‘We hope.’ It gave me a sense that I had a fighting chance because there was the word ‘hope’.”
For roughly seven months, Meisha endured a regimen that included rituximab, cyclophosphamide, hydroxyldaunorubicin, oncovin and prednisone (R-CHOP). Her hair and eyelashes fell out, her joints ached and she was exhausted. At one point she developed a septic infection in her chemo port that sent her to the intensive care unit. She spent several weeks on life support.
Despite the pain, Meisha fought, and in 2000 she was declared cancer free.
Today, Meisha, now 24, is working toward a master’s degree at Texas Woman’s University College of Health Sciences and works as a clinical research coordinator at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. She continues to participate in clinical research, but now she does so as part of a long-term study of pediatric cancer patients that is being conducted by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The R-CHOP regimen she helped pioneer has become a primary and effective treatment for Burkitt’s lymphoma and a wide range of other B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas.
Meisha says she’s living proof of the power of clinical research. She credits her care team’s empathy and commitment to communication with helping her persevere throughout her battle with cancer and advises anyone thinking about participating in clinical research to “understand the risks and make sure your questions are answered.”
She also advises them to think broadly about the benefits of research. “Do not just decide to participate because of the potential that it might effectively treat your illness,” she says, “but because of the countless others that may have to fight the same fight.
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