Hannah Carlin, a fourth-year student studying microbiology, doesn’t recall much of her cancer treatment — granted, she was 16 months old at the time of her diagnosis.
But her mother, Beth Heinz, certainly does.
“You’re not guaranteed anything in life. You’re not guaranteed a lifetime with your children,” Heinz said.
A new device from the University of Minnesota Medical School may make it easier to monitor certain types of at-home, oral treatments for cancer patients — a technology that may have benefited Carlin and her mother.
Edward Greeno, a University oncology professor and medical director for the Masonic Cancer Clinic, said the device will help doctors monitor chemotherapy medications taken by patients at home.
Sensors the size of a grain of salt are attached to the chemotherapy pills, and a monitor worn on the patient’s stomach receives information confirming that the patient has taken their prescribed dose. The monitor then sends data to an app that can be accessed by patients and doctors, showing them if and when a medication has been taken. This device can help ensure that cancer patients take their medications regularly, something that is necessary in order to effectively battle cancer.
“We’ve had a longstanding effort to make oral chemotherapy as safe as the IV, and the one piece that has always been missing is seeing if patients are keeping up on treatments themselves,” Greeno said.
The project is still in its beginning stages. The device, made by a company called Proteus Digital Health, can also relay additional information to care providers, such as heart rate and amount of physical activity.
“It makes both of us, both the doctor prescribing and managing this and the patient taking this regimen, feel more comfortable,” Greeno said. “The bigger picture, having a more comprehensive window into the lives of the patient when they’re not physically there at the clinic, is really going to help us.”
Carlin had a rare form of cancer called Langerhans cell histiocytosis, which causes lesions to form on the body. Keeping track of her daughter's treatments was important in helping her get better, Heinz said.
“It certainly would have been easier than me tracking or writing down dose times, that sort of thing ... then we could just have a conversation [with our oncologist],” Heinz said, had such a device been available to them.
The diagnosis and subsequent treatments were stressful on the entire family, Heinz said. Life for a mother of two does not stop for anyone — or any illness — and so, among family dinners and a full-time job, Heinz helped Carlin through surgeries and intravenous and at-home chemotherapy treatments.
“[Hannah] had lost a couple of her vertebrae. The cancer attacked her bones, and then she had seven lesions in her skull. As soon as she was diagnosed, she was started on a therapy regimen that included a couple chemotherapy drugs, including intravenous and oral, and then that also was augmented with steroids,” Heinz said.
Heinz found strength enough for both herself and her daughter — leaning on her family and daughter’s care team — despite not knowing what lay ahead.
“On the evening that she was diagnosed ... I went on a long walk by myself, and I just accepted the fact that she might be gone. Once I actually accepted that fact, I knew I could take anything short of that,” Heinz said.
Carlin underwent 18 months of chemotherapy, Heinz said. The treatments, having left her with orthopedic issues, meant she would wear a back brace for the next three and a half years.
“I remember it being like putting on your pair of socks for the day,” Carlin said. “It’s just like something you had to wear and something you had to do. It was just part of the everyday for me.”
Carlin is now a director for the University’s chapter of the Colleges Against Cancer student group. For her, being a childhood cancer survivor meant being able to empathize with others undergoing hardship. It also meant recognizing the value of the intangible, like her relationship with her mother, which she said had been strengthened by their shared past experiences.
“She definitely saw me at the worst of my entire life, so knowing that I needed her for the first four years of my life even more than a normal infant would, it really strengthened us,” Carlin said. “We have a really special bond, and I really appreciate her and everything she’s done for me.”
New technology, like Greeno’s new medicine sensor system, could help ease the burden of battling cancer for families, patients and doctors.
“For a parent with a sick kid with cancer,” Heinz said, “you want to do [treatment] as best as you can, because you want that best shot for your kid.”