From JK Klaiber

July 22, 2016


Lesli Custis and her husband with OHC’s Dr. Patrick Ward

As a preschool teacher, Lesli Custis knew how to multi-task and navigate challenges. As a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient, she didn’t waiver from those challenges and took control to help navigate her personal healthcare choices.

Lesli did her homework to determine who the best physician and care team would be for her cancer journey.

“You go into this kind of thing so blind,” says Lesli Custis of Mason. “Looking back when I was first diagnosed and started thinking about treatment options, it was a whirlwind. I had no idea what was involved in treating cancer.” A few days before her 49th birthday on Aug. 9, 2011, Custis was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I made an appointment to get a mammogram because I felt something was off,” she says. “There was something there and after a sonogram we discovered a second mass. I was then referred to a surgeon, Dr. Dianne Runk, and she did a biopsy, and that was when we knew for sure that I had breast cancer.” Custis quit her job as a preschool teacher to focus on researching cancer and finding treatments. Her sister, husband, and two adult children joined her and offered support.

“We did a lot of research and Dr. Pat Ward’s name kept coming to the top,” she remembers.

Patrick J. Ward, M.D., PhD, is a medical oncologist with OHC (Oncology Hematology Care). He specializes in treating breast cancer and is a principal investigator for breast cancer research to find more effective treatments. Elizabeth H. Levick, M.D., a radiation oncologist and breast cancer specialist with OHC, also participated in Lesli’s care.

Custis’s treatment began with chemotherapy, followed by surgery, radiation, and then reconstruction.

“My whole team at OHC was absolutely fantastic,” says Custis. “Dr. Ward and the other doctors were very open and honest about everything. I’m a very black-and-white person and they understood that. Dr. Ward laid out my treatment options for me, explained them all to me, and then would say, ‘This is all your choice.’

“I never felt like I was being told what to do, I was a partner.”

After her initial treatment was finished, Custis was still at-risk as the breast cancer could metastasize and spread to other parts of the body. “Dr. Ward told me that bones seem to be a popular target site when cancer spreads and that I was a candidate for a clinical trial that could prevent that,” says Custis. “Participating in the clinical trial wasn’t a decision that I made in one day; my family and I spent a long time discussing it with him and researching it.”

Like many doctors who are part of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), Dr. Ward is interested in pursuing new treatments through clinical trials.

“We test new treatments against the accepted standard,” Dr. Ward says. “Maybe adding a new drug to the therapy or changing the schedule that the drugs are taken can all be part of a clinical trial.

“Another part of clinical trials is observing. For example, we find new ways to test blood samples to see if cancer cells are traveling through the blood stream.”

After reading research articles and other information, Custis and her family couldn’t find a downside and went forward with the cutting-edge treatment.

“Lesli had a common form of breast cancer,” says Dr. Ward, “And because it is so prevalent today, we are trying to find new and better ways of taking care of patients. Her trials will not only help her, but it will help millions of women.”

Clinical trials, or clinical research, differs from established treatment by either altering the way we give established regimens, or by adding or replacing a medicine with one that may work better. “There obviously isn’t a cure for cancer out there, but I knew that this could be a step in that direction,” says Custis. “Hopefully, Dr. Ward can help women down the road by collecting my information. I’m happy that I can be a part of it.”

“OHC has a nationally recognized clinical research program and collaborates with national organizations, and because of our participation, OHC is able to bring new therapies to Southwestern Ohio,” says Dr. Ward. “OHC has award-winning data-collection methods and we are able to pool our information together at a national level in order to draw more meaningful conclusions.”

Now, five years since her diagnosis, Custis has no regrets about participating in the clinical trials.

“He’s the captain of the ship and I run everything by him,” Custis says of Dr. Ward. “Being a teacher, I know how I learn and how I am. I need information. Every time I ask a question I expect to get answers. That’s exactly what I got from Dr. Ward. I really can’t say enough about him.”

Custis also has some advice for other women when it comes to breast cancer.

“Trust your instincts and go early,” she says. “I should have gone earlier but I didn’t because I would think to myself, ‘There’s no family history, I’m only 48, I walk a lot – there’s no way I have cancer.’ ”

She has gone back to work and is looking forward to her daughter’s wedding.

“I’m just living and loving life,” she smiles.

Lesli’s Shares What Helped Her:

  • When looking for a cancer physician, do your research; you do have a choice
  • Faith and a positive attitude are a must
  • Bring a family member or friend with you to appointments so you have a “second” pair of ears
  • Keep your routine as normal as possible – children and friends helped with this task
Photography by Daniel Smyth.
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