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Denise’s story: Overcoming a rare cancer through advanced, targeted treatment

2 minute read
Denise Snow Williams walks her dog
I am so grateful for every day, and I don’t take anything for granted. It’s truly a miracle that I’m still here.

Denise Snow Williams

In April of 2017, Denise Snow Williams and her husband, Frank, were on a European adventure. With their children in college, they finally had the time and space to travel—something they both loved to do.

While on a train leaving Switzerland, Denise was surprised to feel an unfamiliar lump on her neck. At first, Frank surmised that she had caught a cold, but Denise suspected otherwise. She visited her nurse practitioner who echoed Denise’s concerns and raised some new ones. For example, she noticed that Denise had lost 20 pounds. The nurse practitioner then referred her to an endocrinologist.

And after a biopsy and some bloodwork, Denise’s endocrine team confirmed a difficult diagnosis: Anaplastic thyroid cancer—a very rare form of cancer that has long been considered basically untreatable.

“I was so sad,” recalled Denise. "I called my husband, who has been my rock—he’s just the greatest guy ever—and he said, ‘Calm down—we’re going to see Lori J. Wirth, M.D., Medical Director of the Center for Head and Neck Cancers at the Mass General Cancer Center.’ ”

Clinical trial targeted anaplastic thyroid cancer

“Anaplastic thyroid cancer is one of the worst cancers we deal with in oncology,” said Dr. Wirth. “What was particularly difficult in [Denise’s] case was that she had bulky disease in the neck that couldn’t be removed by surgery.”

Under Dr. Wirth’s care, Denise entered a clinical trial involving a drug that specifically targets anaplastic thyroid cancer. In Denise’s case, the therapy had serious side effects. She developed a hole in her airway that required her to undergo a tracheostomy procedure—meaning a tube was inserted into her windpipe to help her breathe. “She had such a brisk response in the tumor to the drug,” said Dr. Wirth. “We had to stop.”

Advanced cancer therapies and trials offer hope

After Denise had taken some time to recover, Dr. Wirth reached out to her about another promising clinical trial through the Henri and Belinda Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies at the Mass General Cancer Center.

Although this immunotherapy treatment wasn’t a guaranteed cure for Denise, researchers had seen positive outcomes in early trials. Denise agreed to participate. She recalled thinking, “If this will help other people in the future with treating this disease, I have to do it.”

Despite uncertainty surrounding the outcomes, Denise underwent the treatment and was ultimately met with great news: There was no evidence of disease.

Today, Denise is being closely observed but requires no treatment for her cancer. “I feel fantastic,” said Denise. “I feel absolutely like myself. I do my yoga. I do my walking. I am so grateful for every day, and I don’t take anything for granted. It’s truly a miracle that I’m still here.”