Statewide program helps bring precision cancer care to La Crosse region

Cancer is something that strikes at the heart and soul of millions of people. One local cancer survivor thought her days were numbered after she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.

However, a statewide effort is giving patients who are out of options one last hope. Margie Mason has called La Crosse home her entire life.

“It’s the beauty and sense of family,” Mason said.

Mason has made a career in sales and is an active member of the La Crosse Community.

“I surround myself with positive things and people,” Mason said.

A person you will find every year at one of the most highly attended fundraisers in the state, Gundersen Health System’s Steppin’ Out In Pink, raising money for cancer research.

“My mother passed away on March 17 of 2011,” Mason said.

Like mother, like daughter, Mason noticed something shortly after her mom died that would change everything.

“This was more than just a lump. They found a mass,” Mason said. “Through additional testing, they noticed that it traveled to my lymph node and then down to my lung.”

She was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer.

“When people hear the big C word it’s always a very scary and frightening time,” said Gundersen oncologist Dr. Ben Parsons.

Mason was at a loss for words when she heard the news.

“You are just numb,” Mason said. “I remember walking and thinking this just can’t be. This can’t be right. It’s not right.”

Her only option was to basically buy time. Parsons said cancer is like a fingerprint inside every person diagnosed.

“Patients with advanced cancers often times have limited treatment options,” Parsons said. “Not always does one treatment fit all.”

Dr. Paraic Kenny said it’s why cancer is so tough to treat.

“We have 3 billion letters in our genome,” Kenny said.

Mason said the hardest part was telling her family and her friends.

“It’s not just me going through treatment,” Mason said. “It’s everyone I know going through treatment with me.”

She tries to stay positive every day.

“A good friend of my father told me, ‘The best pill is between your ears,'” Mason said.

A board of doctors and cancer researchers gave Mason a chance to survive.

“We were lucky enough to be offered a role in this statewide effort,” Parsons said.

Parsons is the director of Gundersen’s role in the Precision Medicine Molecular Tumor Board. It’s a collaboration among the University of Wisconsin Madison, UW-Health and other health care agencies such as Gundersen Health System. This team of doctors works together to give patients with severe forms of cancer options for specific treatments and therapies.

“We have had some successes from doing that in our program and we are pretty optimistic that we are on to something,” Parsons said.

Parsons works with Kenny.

“It’s a very exciting time in cancer biology,” Kenny said. “I’ve been a cancer researcher for 20 years.”

Kenny works with a group of Ph.D.s at the La Crosse Medical Health Science Consortium. They look at cases like Margie’s to figure out new ways to treat cancer.

“Our hope is that what we can learn from treating patients with advanced cancer will soon be able to apply to patients with much earlier stages of the disease,” Kenny said.

Mason would still have a difficult climb but she had a plan.

“In some way, I felt secure because when I left the clinic I knew what my plan was,” Mason said.

She went through eight rounds of Chemo and 33 rounds of radiation and one that led to an infection.

“I don’t wish it on anybody,” Mason said.

These doctors are trying to reduce the number of chemo treatments and offer things with fewer side effects.

“Sometimes these patients are really riddled with cancer,” Parsons said. They have a lot of cancer in their body and then we will start one of these medicines. If it really hits the spot, immediately they are feeling better. Within weeks they are going into very deep remission and we’ve seen people be cancer-free for months.”

Mason said the work these cancer experts are doing is impacting so many lives.

“There’s so much cancer out there,” Mason said. “Thankfully, we have got them working on it here.”

It’s health care you wouldn’t expect in a town of 50,000.

“It is unique in a smaller community to have something that is usually limited to large academic centers,” Parsons said. “It’s something that we are very proud of.”

Mason has lived eight years past her original diagnosis.

“It’s amazing what is housed in those buildings,” Mason said. “It’s making a difference.”

Mason has had a second cancer diagnosis but it returned to just one spot. She will not need chemotherapy when she goes back in for treatment.

She said she will continue to volunteer with Steppin’ Out In Pink to help more people fight this battle.

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