Paula Allen, 46, is the quintessential baseball mother, cheering on her children every time they stepped up to the plate. While she knew that not every hit would be a grand slam, she also trusted that if her children persisted they would eventually knock it out of the park.
In July 2013, after discovering blood in her urine, Allen knew something was wrong. Suddenly, the mother who spent years cheering on everyone else needed the same pep-talks and support that she had provided to others. This time around, it was Allen’s turn to persist and knock it out of the park.
Before the symptomatic discovery, Allen had spent the previous five years undergoing treatment for chronic urinary tract infections. After noticing the blood in her urine, her local physician referred her to a urologist, and she underwent preliminary tests that identified urothelial carcinoma. Allen was then referred to Duke Cancer Institute, where a biopsy confirmed non-invasive bladder cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, over 80,000 new cases of bladder cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2019. Historically, bladder cancer occurs mainly in older adults, with about 90 percent of cases diagnosed over the age of 55, and men are more likely than women to develop this cancer. About half of all bladder cancers are identified while the disease is limited to the inner layer of the bladder wall, also known as non-invasive.
“Working in healthcare, I talk to people about cancer all day long, but when it happens to you, and you become the patient, it’s scary,” described Allen, who has worked at Duke Regional Hospital in the interventional radiology and ultrasound department for over 24 years. “Bladder cancer didn’t run in my family, so this diagnosis caught me a bit off guard. Honestly, it was probably the most difficult day of my life.”
In August 2013, Allen began BCG treatment for her bladder cancer. Within a year, scans revealed that Allen was not responding to the treatment and her cancer had progressed into muscle-invasive bladder cancer. In early 2014, she began radiation treatments which later produced three negative biopsies.
In March 2016, a pelvic MRI showed a new mass wrapped around her urethra, and Allen was scheduled for pelvic exenteration surgery, a procedure that removes all organs from your urinary and gynecologic systems.
“I decided early on that someone was going to win this fight,” said Allen, holding back tears as she recalled her battle and the 15-hour surgery. “I was determined not to give up easily.”
In July 2016, after post-surgery exams showed the cancer had metastasized to her lungs, Allen was referred to Tian Zhang, MD, MHS, a medical oncologist at Duke Cancer Institute who specializes in bladder cancer research and treatment.
“Dr. Zhang is amazing and I would honestly be lost without her,” stated Allen. “She gives me personal care, and I have total confidence in any treatments or clinical trials she recommends. My entire care team at Duke has gone above and beyond during my treatments, and I am so thankful for each and every one of them.”
Over the past three years, Allen has cycled through a variety of different chemotherapies and immunotherapies.
“Mrs. Allen has undergone many different treatment options during her cancer care and has taken every obstacle, from side effects of the drug to life changes, with an optimistic and brilliant point of view throughout the course of her disease,” said Zhang. “We are constantly researching new options for bladder cancer treatments and there are a few new therapies on the horizon for this disease. Research is vital to making strides in cancer care, and I really believe many of our patients will benefit from these newer treatment options when they become available.”
Currently, Allen is off treatment while battling a separate illness.
“I won’t lie, some days are very difficult, but I take days off when I need them and my husband and kids push me to do my best,” describes Allen. “I want to show my kids, take what life gives you and don’t make an excuse, learn to fight and work harder!”
Throughout her treatment, Allen was an active participant in Burn Bootcamp Durham. In honor of her tenacious spirit, Burn Bootcamp created a scholarship fund, “Team Paula with No Excuses” in her name. The fund provides a selected individual with a free year of workouts.
“The biggest message I want to share is to never give up,” said Allen. “I think your attitude and perseverance is 80% of the fight, and you have to keep a positive attitude. Learn to lean on people – let them help you build strength. Every moment I have felt like giving up, one of my children will come up to me and say, ‘Mom, I love you’ and that’ll remind me – I’m fighting for more than just myself. I will never give up. I’m stronger than this!”
As the baseball legend Babe Ruth once said, “Every strike brings me closer to the home run.”