Living Life with Metastatic Lung Cancer: Kristin’s Story

Kristin Brown came to Memorial Sloan Kettering with a diagnosis of lung cancer. She began treatment that kept the disease at bay. When the cancer spread to her spine, she came to MSK’s Multidisciplinary Spine Tumor Service for an integrated regimen that included radiation and surgery. Today, Kristin is on a clinical trial for a new form of chemotherapy.

Kristin (rear), with husband Derek, children Sydney and Reece, and dog Lilly.

Kristin (rear), with husband Derek, children Sydney and Reece, and dog Lilly

Highlights
  • Upstate New York native Kristin Brown was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016.
  • She came to MSK and was treated by medical oncologists Marjorie Zauderer and Mark Kris.
  • When the cancer spread to her spine, she underwent surgery with Mark Bilsky and radiation therapy with Daniel Higginson.
  • Kristin has since started on a clinical trial evaluating a new form of targeted chemotherapy.
  • Today, she is doing well and back to work at her family business.

In the summer of 2016, Kristin Brown began experiencing shortness of breath. Her doctor thought it was a symptom of anxiety.

But Kristin, an entrepreneur from upstate New York, knew something was amiss. She went for a second opinion and got a chest scan.

The results were a shock: Kristin had 5 liters of fluid in her lungs. She was sent to a hospital in Manhattan, where she learned she had lung cancer. She also learned that her cancer was caused by a mutation in the gene that makes EGFR, a protein important to cell growth.

Kristin and her immediate family — her husband, Derek, and two children, Sydney and Reece — were stunned. Kristin runs the family’s soap business with her father, Gary, and sister, Alison, so they were going to have to make some big decisions, and fast. The entire family, which also includes Kristin’s mom, GG, and brothers David and Scott, rallied around her.

Coming to MSK

Kristin underwent a biopsy at that Manhattan hospital to determine what type of lung cancer she had. But when it came time to plan out the rest of her care, she knew she wanted to change course.

“I wanted to come to MSK,” says Kristin, now 51. “My sister was treated for breast cancer here. We trusted MSK’s reputation and doctors.”

Kristin made an appointment with medical oncologist Marjorie Zauderer, who started her on erlotinib (Tarceva®), a form of oral chemotherapy that targets the exact mutation Kristin had. Because it was an oral medication, Kristin didn’t need to come in for infusions. She had some gastrointestinal side effects and minor hair loss, but she managed them both.

“The great thing about oral drugs is that people can typically go about their business and live their lives,” says Dr. Zauderer. “Kristin is a young woman with young children. It was very important for her to take care of her kids, and she was able to do that.”

When Dr. Zauderer went on maternity leave, Kristin began seeing medical oncologist Mark Kris. Kristin stayed on the regimen laid out by Dr. Zauderer for a full year.

Kristin is a young woman with young children. It was very important for her to take care of her kids, and she was able to do that.
Marjorie G. Zauderer
Marjorie G. Zauderer medical oncologist

A New Challenge

In the spring of 2018, Kristin’s back started hurting. An MRI revealed that the cancer had spread (metastasized) to her spine. She met neurosurgeon Mark Bilsky, Chief of MSK’s Multidisciplinary Spine Tumor Service (MSTS), the very next day.

The MSTS brings together highly specialized spine experts in the fields of neurosurgery, radiation oncology, interventional neuroradiology, physiatry, and pain management. The group creates and implements individualized care plans for each person. When a tumor is pressing on the spinal cord, it can lead to paralysis and other serious problems. The MSTS is designed to provide assessment and care from the whole team within 48 hours of a person’s first call to the service.

“We have the only truly integrated program in the country, and it has paid great dividends in patient care,” Dr. Bilsky says. “Because we have so many effective treatment options, and the decisions we make are highly complex, we needed to establish an outpatient clinic three days a week and have round-the-clock availability for inpatient care. The fundamental goal is to deliver timely, comprehensive care from the world’s experts in spine tumors.”

Dr. Bilsky recommended a two-part approach: surgery to remove the tumor pressing on the spinal cord followed by radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells and prevent the cancer from returning.

“He was so reassuring and nice, and he made me feel so good,” Kristin recalls of her first meeting with Dr. Bilsky. “He said we were going to take care of it. Four days later, I got surgery.”

Dr. Bilsky wasn’t the only one who made an impression. Kristin left a memorable stamp on her care team from her very first visit.

“I remember her beautiful smile and positive, loving energy, even after we told her she needed surgery,” says Cynthia Correa, clinical nurse coordinator for the MSTS. “She also had a loving, supportive family.”

During the surgery that March, Dr. Bilsky removed the tumor pressing on Kristin’s spinal cord and inserted two metal rods to stabilize her spine. One month later, radiation oncologist Daniel Higginson treated the rest of the area where Kristin’s cancer was.

We have the only truly integrated program in the country, and it has paid great dividends in patient care.
Mark H. Bilsky
Mark H. Bilsky neurosurgeon

More Options for Kristin

After radiation, Kristin went back on chemotherapy, but a different medication this time. It kept the lung cancer at bay, but the cancer returned in her spine again. Kristin underwent a second round of radiation in December 2018.

At this point, Kristin discussed her options with Dr. Kris. He told her about a lung cancer clinical trial at MSK that was evaluating a new form of treatment combining antibody therapy and chemotherapy to deliver a one-two punch to cancer cells.

“It’s a clever way to target cancer,” says Dr. Kris. “The antibody finds its way to the cancer cell and finds a certain protein on the cancer cell. Attached to the antibody is chemotherapy. The antibody basically brings the chemo to the cancer cells.”

Because this new medicine directly targets cancer cells, it spares patients from many of the side effects of traditional chemotherapy. He thought Kristin would be a good candidate, and she met the criteria of the trial.

The Power of Support

Today, Kristin is still taking part in the clinical trial, which is ongoing, and she is feeling great. She has had some additional gastrointestinal side effects, but she manages them with her diet and medication. She has also experienced fatigue, but makes time for rest when she needs it. In April 2019, she had a follow-up appointment with Drs. Bilsky and Higginson that revealed no new tumors on her spine.

As a way to give back, Kristin, her sister, and her father decided to create gift bags for people undergoing chemotherapy at MSK. They included socks, tea, lip balm, and their family’s homemade soap.

“We just wanted people to know they’re not alone,” she says.

Dr. Kris has seen the impact that Kristin’s network of support has made in her recovery.

“It’s very humbling how dedicated she and her family are to receiving care at MSK,” he says. “No matter what is asked of them, they get Kristin here. It’s a very nice example of how a whole family mobilizes to take care of a person. She has a total commitment to getting well, and that commitment is shared by every member of her family.”