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Ground-breaking clinical trial turned the tide after Sarah’s rare cancer diagnosis

Sarah Ewald fought alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma twice. Seven years after a clinical trial put her second cancer in remission, she is a 28-year-old University of Minnesota graduate.

Sarah Ewald was juggling academics, sports, friends, family and extracurricular activities during her senior year of high school when, one day in March, she noticed a bump on her foot.

She received an X-ray, then an MRI, then a biopsy. The news was devastating: the bump was caused by a tumor. Sarah had alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma – a rare, difficult-to-treat cancer that forms in the body’s muscles and soft tissues. More than 70 percent of alveolar rhabdomyosarcomas come back after treatment, and survival rates are significantly lower for returning cancers.

“At my very first appointment, my oncologist said, ‘I could rattle off the stats all day for you … but I want you to focus on being 100% cancer-free. That’s where we’re going to get you,’” Sarah said.

Clinical trials turn the tide

Following her diagnosis, Sarah began treatment in March 2010 at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. Many of the cancer care experts at the children’s hospital are also researchers at University of Minnesota Medical School and Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, which means Sarah had access to breakthrough treatments backed by decades of research.

Sarah participated in a clinical trial testing a new type of chemotherapy in addition to radiation and surgery to fight the cancer. The combination of new and proven treatments turned the tide on Sarah’s rhabdomyosarcoma, even though it had already spread to her pancreas and spleen.

After more than a year of treatment, Sarah was declared cancer-free in May 2011. But her journey wasn’t over. 15 months later, she found another lump – this time in her thigh. The cancer had returned. Sarah was diagnosed with recurrent alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma – an even more challenging form of the disease

A “miraculous” outcome

Once again, Sarah took part in another clinical trial led by university researchers and underwent another year of treatment. This time, however, her clinical trial was so effective that the trial ended early in order to advance the new treatment and recommend that all patients in this situation move to this new therapy.

“It’s only the second time in my career that I have been part of a [clinical] trial that’s so successful that it had to end early, with the recommendation that all patients get switched,” said Pediatric Hematologist/Oncologist Brenda Weigel, MD, MSc, who oversaw Sarah’s care.

This clinical trial, one of many available through our long-standing partnership with the University of Minnesota, is an example of M Health Fairview’s unique ability to develop new and groundbreaking therapies and bring them from the research lab to local treatment centers in order to make a direct impact on people’s lives.

Learn how you can support life-changing pediatric cancer research at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.

Today, Sarah is 28 years old, married to her high-school sweetheart, and a 2016 University of Minnesota graduate. She uses her marketing degree in her work at her family’s association management company. The team at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital have become like family to her, and Sarah is looking forward, grateful for every day.

 “To still have no recurrence of her disease, more than five years after the trial ended, is miraculous,” said Weigel.

 “I’m thankful to the people who are funding cancer research and to the people who are doing the research,” Sarah said. “Research will help more kids reach milestones like going to college and getting married – and help them do so with minimal long-term side effects.”