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Willie Heard is a man of faith.
His faith stood strong even after he got tragic news in September 2013.
Heard was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), a group of bone marrow cancers in which the bone marrow does not produce enough healthy blood cells.
His cancer diagnosis came just months after retiring from his job at USAA and just shy of his 67th birthday.
“I’m a religious person and a minister and, I think I remember telling the doctor, I said, ‘Doctor you do what you do, I’m gonna let God do what he does,’” said Heard, a resident of San Antonio, Texas. “[The cancer diagnosis] was a surprise to me, but I’ve always been a person that don’t really worry about stuff I can’t control, so I don’t let that bother me.”
Heard’s Decision to Participate in a Clinical Trial
In 2013, Heard, a married father of two grown children, was regularly walking a few miles a day and exercising. He described himself as “very fit.”
But he began feeling more tired than normal. His body didn’t recover as quickly.
So, he visited his doctor and had some blood work done. His blood cell count was low, so his doctor scheduled him for a biopsy that revealed the cancer.
Following his diagnosis, Heard began researching MDS through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
After much research, Heard’s doctor at the Mays Cancer Center at UT Health San Antonio presented him with the idea of participating in a cancer clinical trial. A clinical trial is a research study that helps researchers learn more to help slow, manage, and treat diseases like cancer for current and future family members.
Heard didn’t hesitate to consider a clinical trial – even though he had heard some of the negative stigma around trials in the African American community.
“So, I knew about clinical trials, but I wasn’t afraid to do a trial because I look at it this way: Maybe they can’t cure me, but maybe I can help someone else. And that is my thought process on that. Maybe I can help somebody else,” Heard said.
Heard and his doctor were able to have an informative discussion about a specific clinical trial in which everything was explained to him clearly.
“She thought I was a good candidate for this trial and she explained it to me and talked to me extensively about it, told me what the medication does, and put it all in layman’s terms,” Heard said.
He said he trusted his doctor and her team.
“Well, one of the things they did was, they gave me the information packet on the clinical trial. And I took that. It was actually a packet that I was gonna sign to participate. They gave it to me in advance, I took it home, and I read though it and I didn’t see any problems with it and I kind of told them, right? I’m going to participate,” Heard said. “And they scheduled a time for me to come back and then I went again and signed the paperwork for me to do it. I just felt strong about doing it.”
Heard talked with his wife and family about the clinical trial. He said that, while his decision to participate in the trial was ultimately his, his doctor gave him all of the information and trust he needed, in addition to trusting God.
“[Heard’s doctor] takes the time to explain things, and I’m really appreciative and really like her a lot,” Heard said. “Anytime I have a question I can just call – she has a couple of research coordinators. And I get a response.”
Heard Saw Positive Results from Clinical Trials
Through participation in clinical trials, Heard saw positive results.
“That drug, what it does, is that when you first take it will first cause your blood count to drop some and then elevate it. And then, [Heard’s doctor] explained it. The more you fall into the trial, it doesn’t go as low, it might not go as low the next time,” Heard said.
Over the course of a few weeks, Heard saw the number of platelets continue to increase, even doubling in number.
Heard noted that he hadn’t experienced an increase that high in 6 years.
“I am getting better, and in the trial, I was monitored every week, so having a close follow-up by the medical team to ensure I was responding well to the treatment is great. It made feel safe,” Heard said.
Through his clinical trial participation, Heard began to feel better. He was able to participate in activities at his church and go out and do errands without any bad side effects.
“I feel stronger right now since my platelets went up,” Heard said. “When I was taking the medication, I felt a little tired or maybe a little weaker after two or three days of taking it, but other than that, afterwards my energy, it picked back up. That could be because the medication was working like they said it would.”
Heard recommends that those who have been diagnosed with cancer and have the option to participate in a clinical trial should listen to their doctors, do some of their own research, and most importantly, have a positive attitude.
“If people have a good attitude and stay positive about things and do what your doctor tells you to do, and also if there are clinical trials out there, that your doctors are offering to you, they may help you, participate in those trials. So, I think keeping a positive attitude is very key to your wellbeing,” Heard said. “I still think miracles can happen. Some people may not like to hear this, but I still believe God does miracles.”
How Can You Join a Clinical Trial?
Like Willie Heard, you can find and participate in a clinical trial!
“The main reason [I joined the trial was] to help other people,” Heard said. “It meant a lot to me to participate, I really like participating in it.”
Historically, Latinos and other people of color have been underrepresented.
Through the Salud America! clinical trials page, you can find an open trial that is most beneficial to you and your familia!
“[Clinical research] can produce a substantial, sustained impact. And they can ensure everyone equitably benefits from scientific advances in cancer treatment, improved cancer outcomes, and reduced health care costs,” said Dr. Amelie Ramirez, leader of the Salud America! program at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio.
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.