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Published on April 19, 2017

Rhita Searles

New life through clinical trial

When Rhita Searles speaks, you listen…and smile. The energetic Elroy, Wis., native and Hillsboro resident has an inspiring gift of gab and a zest for life.

For years, though, a serious condition drained Rhita's energy. "I have been healthy and active my entire life. I love to fly fish, hunt…just be outdoors," Rhita says. "So, when I got that call in 2008, I was absolutely shocked."

While living in Idaho, Rhita was treated for a condition that would later be diagnosed as chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer that forms in bone marrow and progresses to a patient's blood.

Wayne Bottner, MD

Wayne Bottner, MD, Gundersen Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders

"It was frightening," Rhita says. "I didn't know what to do, and I didn't want to tell anyone – my friends, even my own family – because I didn't think anyone could do anything to help me." Rhita endured exhaustion and increasing discomfort for more than six years.

Wayne Bottner, MD, Gundersen Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, and his colleagues confirmed Rhita's diagnosis and found she could benefit from a clinical trial. She was randomly assigned a promising new drug, ibrutinib.

"While we can't guarantee a clinical trial will lead to a better treatment given outside a trial, we do know that participation in trials offers patients like Rhita a chance at improving their condition with treatments they couldn't otherwise receive," Dr. Bottner says.

After weighing the pros and cons of the trial, Rhita enrolled and began treatment in November 2015. She showed rapid improvement, and in March 2016, she received good news. "I was told 'Rhita, you're almost back to normal.' I said 'well, you'd better tell my friends. I haven't been called 'normal' in a long time,'" Rhita says, not missing a chance to joke.

"We often hear patients say 'I don't want to be a guinea pig,'" Dr. Bottner says. "The reality is that we have ethical safeguards in place to protect the safety of patients on trial and ensure the treatments being studied are likely to be as good as or better than 'standard' treatment. Rhita is helping us advance evidence-based medicine, and she is clearly benefiting in the process."

Rhita has regained the pep in her step and wants to be an advocate for those considering a clinical trial.

"I was nervous at first, but Dr. Bottner and the team at Gundersen were wonderful," Rhita says. They explained everything in my language. They took time for me, and that means the world. You are not a number. You are a person here."

Learn more about our cancer clinical trials

New treatments depend on clinical trials

Gundersen Health System, with the support of Gundersen Medical Foundation and many generous donors, participates in several clinical research trials or studies. These studies give patients access to the cutting-edge treatments. Participants also help others by contributing to ground-breaking medical research.

Clinical research collects information about medications, medical treatments or medical devices that have been developed and have shown promise in laboratory study. Before a research trial is conducted at Gundersen, it must be reviewed for its scientific merit, making sure the safety and rights of volunteers are protected.

To learn how generosity is changing lives, visit gundersenhealth.org/Foundation or contact Robyn Tanke at (608) 775-6600.