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Life doesn’t always take a straight path. Sometimes you are drawn to a place by chance. Sometimes an event has such an impact, it changes your way of thinking. Sometimes you just realize you’re meant to do something else—something more. This applies to Elyse D’Astous, a clinical research coordinator at Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Elyse’s introduction to the medical field started at a young age. Her dad is a surgeon and her mother a nurse.
"I got my undergraduate degree in kinesiology. I became interested in sports psychology and got my masters in that, studying motivation and injury." After her master’s, Elyse started to panic—like most people faced with deciding the next big step in life. After applying for several jobs, she became a research coordinator in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Utah.
"During my year there, everyone raved about Huntsman Cancer Institute. When I learned their goal was to eradicate cancer and minimize the burden of this disease, it spoke to me." In 2006, Elyse’s uncle passed away from cancer that had spread to his liver, bones, and eventually his brain. When she started exploring opportunities at Huntsman Cancer Institute, one of her best friends was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 26 years old.
At the time, Elyse admits, "I didn’t even know what clinical trials were!" The year 2022 marks her fifth working in clinical trials at Huntsman Cancer Institute.
It may be paperwork and phone calls most days, but those duties are vital steps in the clinical trials process.
"It is a job that has great purpose and great meaning. You meet people on some of their worst days. Every now and then you lose someone. But when you can give them hope with any bit of positive news, it means everything."
"Our job is to enroll patients on clinical trials. It usually starts with a referral from their doctor. We introduce the study in more detail and provide them with a consent form, which outlines the background of the study as well as the expectations and procedures, among other things. If they are interested in participating, we set up another meeting to review the consent form and start scheduling screening procedures to assess their eligibility."
The screening procedures usually include doctor visits, scans, lab work, and other tests. If the patient meets all criteria, the investigators will sign the eligibility documents and the coordinator can then register the patient to the trial. Once a patient starts a clinical trial, Elyse or another coordinator goes to the appointments, recording any adverse effects from the treatment or medication. Referring to the study protocol, the coordinator works with the clinic team to evaluate whether the patient can continue on the trial’s intervention.
"I’m just a small part of a huge team. The great part about Huntsman Cancer Institute is that we work closely with doctors, nurses, specimen processors, pharmacists, billing specialists, regulatory coordinators, and others. We are in constant communication with different groups to organize everything and take care of our patients."
Most patients Elyse meets are excited to be part of a clinical trial—anything that can possibly help with their treatment. But some are more apprehensive about the process.
"I understand, and want people to know we never see them as test subjects or numbers. As part of a trial, you often have access to even more resources for your care. You’re having more one-on-one visits with specialists, more tests, more labs, and you have the opportunity to try the next potential breakthrough drug."
Most cancer types have different subgroups and many can be staged, often 0 through IV. Elyse works primarily with stage IV breast cancer patients. Clinical trials are also divided into phases, I through IV. Pre-clinical trials evaluate new drugs in the laboratory, phase I clinical trials assess its safety in humans, phase II analyzes the drug’s efficacy, and phase III determines whether this new drug is a better choice than what is currently available.
Elyse may help 30 or more patients at a given time and follows up with some patients for many years to see how they are doing. Most trials run on strict schedules, so patients need tests, procedures, or medicines right away. Elyse and the other clinical research coordinators have to get the ball rolling as quickly as possible.
"There are a lot of moving parts. There is a weight on our shoulders and it can be hard. There are times when I have had doubts, but we have to do our part to make the process move as smoothly as possible for these patients. Thankfully, in this position you feel respected, supported, and involved. I am so grateful for our providers, our team, and everyone I interact with."
The relationships with patients are what make this job special for Elyse.
"I think that’s the most important aspect of my role—forming bonds with people and providing them with opportunities for novel treatments. Even the trials that don’t work provide valuable insight that can help someone else, maybe someone’s son or daughter. It is a job that has great purpose and great meaning. You meet people on some of their worst days. Every now and then you lose someone. But when you can give them hope with any bit of positive news, it means everything."