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September 6 2019

Three-time cancer survivor Kristina Baum talks about life-saving drugs

by Beverly Hallberg

Kristina Baum joins the podcast this week to walk us through her battle with cancer. She’s a personal friend and an inspiration to all who know her as she’s survived three occurrences of melanoma since 2012. Kristina is an advocate for melanoma patients and survivors, access to non-FDA approved drugs for cancer treatment (including her immunotherapy clinical trial), and innovation as a means to find a cure.

Kristina is the current Communications Director of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Previously she served as Chief Spokesperson for Chevron Phillips Chemical Company, Communications Director for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology as well as Press Secretary for the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. She is also an avid runner having completed five triathlons, ten half marathons, one marathon and is currently training for her first Abbot World Major race - the New York City Marathon.

BeverlyHallberg:
And welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you're allowed to think for yourself. I'm your host, Beverly Hallberg. And on today's episode we have a very special guest with us. She is a personal friend of mine and an inspiration to everyone who meets her. Kristina Baum is joining us to talk about her personal journey through battling cancer. Since 2012, she has survived melanoma three separate times. And she's not only an advocate for melanoma patients and survivors, but she's here to talk about her own experience with a clinical trial on immunotherapy, which has changed the outcome of her life.

BeverlyHallberg:
Before we bring her on, a little bit about Kristina. She is the current communications director of the house committee on natural resources. Previously, she served as chief spokesperson for Chevron Phillips Chemical Company, communications director for the house committee on science, space, and technology, as well as press secretary for the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works committee. And if that wasn't enough, she is also an avid runner, having completed five triathlons, 10 half marathons, one marathon, and she is currently training, yes, currently training for her first Abbott World Major race, the New York City Marathon. She's been featured in Roll Call and Runner's World. And it is a pleasure to have her on. Kristina, thank you so much for joining us.

Kristina Baum:
Thank you for having me. This is a treat.

BeverlyHallberg:
So, I don't even know where to begin. You're currently training for the New York City Marathon while you have just completed your clinical trial battling your third bout of cancer. Do people ask you if you're crazy? I'm just going to ask you that because you put us all to shame. All that you've been through and yet you're training for a marathon.

Kristina Baum:
I think I'm crazy, I don't know. [inaudible 00:01:57] sometimes. I don't know how I'm doing it, but we're going to give it a try. So, yeah.

BeverlyHallberg:
I want us to take us back to the beginning and start this out. As I mentioned, in 2012, and we've been friends for probably about 10 years, I would guess. We've known each other for a long time. And I remember when you went through your first bout of cancer, you found out in 2012. Tell us, how old were you? What was that like? I'm sure, and I know it was a shock to you, but for so many people who are listening, who have family and friends or maybe are personally battling through cancer themselves, tell us a little bit about the beginning of your journey through fighting through melanoma.

Kristina Baum:
Yeah, so I was about 30 years old when I first found out, and it was a complete shock to me. I do think when you're first diagnosed, the very first time there is this two to three months period where it just all still feels like a really bad dream, and it feels very surreal. The words, "I have cancer," are leaving the lips of your mouth just doesn't even seem like it's a possibility. It doesn't seem like a reality to you. It takes a lot of processing to get used to that, unfortunately. And there have been a lot of supportive people in my life that have fortunately walked with me through lots of that, and I've learned a lot of do's and don'ts along the way to really try and just sustain. And I've kept working through most of it. The last two times I was working full time on Capitol Hill and was able to maintain that. But that first time was definitely a shock.

Kristina Baum:
And I'm happy to say that present day we are light years different in terms of cancer research than where we were September, 2012 when I was first diagnosed. So, thankfully, there has been a lot of advancement in cancer research and different trials that are available, different treatments that are available. So, when I was diagnosed for the second time, four years after that initial time, there were just a lot more options for me, and that was a huge grace in my life. And I just can't even believe how different it was in just a four year span.

BeverlyHallberg:
And I know that the past two times that you've had cancer and, by the way, let everybody know you are at this point cancer-free as of just a few months ago. Correct?

Kristina Baum:
Mm-hmm.

BeverlyHallberg:
That was the most recent?

Kristina Baum:
That's correct.

BeverlyHallberg:
Congratulations. That's awesome.

Kristina Baum:
Thank you.

BeverlyHallberg:
I'm really curious to find out from you the difference between the treatment that you received through their clinical trial with your second bout to now, and hopefully you can explain to all of us what immunotherapy is and really the advancements we've made in treating cancer.

Kristina Baum:
So the first one I was on was a drug called interferon alpha-2b. And it's a really old drug. It's got to be probably, gosh, maybe 20 years old by now. And I don't even think they really use it for cancer patients anymore. They might in some remote places, but they pretty much don't go to that anymore.

Kristina Baum:
The second time is when I started real immunotherapy. And immunotherapy basically, like a basic definition, is where the drug that is used to harness your body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. So it's very, very different than chemotherapy. And melanoma, which was what I had, or stage four melanoma, was one of the first cancer they started using to test immunotherapy. Many years ago, a guy by the name of Dr. James P Allison, who is now at MD Anderson, was one of the first folks behind this great doctor behind it trying to test this theory and on melanoma patients that were in late stage. And, fortunately, it started working. And so, that just started expanding.

Kristina Baum:
And now, the second time we did a combination immunotherapy. So I used an FDA approved drug called Nivolumab, or it's brand name is called Opdivo. And then we combined that with a non FDA approved drug, which was made by Bristol Myers Squibb, which still doesn't have a name. And it was a pretty powerful drug. I was a phase one trial. There's three phases to a drug trial before it's approved by the FDA. And I was in phase one, so very early on. So when they're trying to adjust the dose and understand how this works on people.

Kristina Baum:
And so, a lot of people say it was a really brave thing. And for me it was more that I just wanted to have the option to try this before going to approve drugs. Because once you exhaust your non FDA options then that's when you can really start going to the approved options. So, in a way, gave me an additional option to try before I would exhaust all different possibilities.

Kristina Baum:
And fortunately, we only did two infusions of the drug. I was supposed to have probably over a year or so of them. And I only had two of them because I did get some pretty tough side effects. And thankfully that was all we needed, and my tumor in my left kidney at that time had reduced in half. And then probably six months later, it was completely gone. And so, now there's just a little scar tissue piece there, and it's gone.

Kristina Baum:
And then this last time I had brain metastases, which means I had a melanoma tumor, so skin cancer tumor, in my brain based in the left occipital, which is where your vision center is. And it was about, I think, eight millimeters in size. And I started just Opdivo, so no combo this time. But it was a drug trial that combined stereotactic radiation. So, what they also refer to as CyberKnife radiation, which is where just a small beam hits that one tumor and blasts it, and then the immunotherapy can go back and kill any remaining pieces that might be in your brain. And that worked for me again this last time. So, obviously, I've been a big fan of immunotherapy. It's been working really well for me.

Kristina Baum:
I know it doesn't work as well for everybody, but I'm confident that there's a lot of advancement in cancer research happening to hopefully provide more birthdays and more years for people that are facing late stage cancer like myself.

BeverlyHallberg:
And I remember us having a conversation when you first told me, I think it was in December or early January, that you found out you had cancer in your brain and that you were going through your third round of this. And of course, at that point, you don't know how many birthdays you have left. And we even had that conversation. And that's, of course, a hard and sobering thing to face for anyone. To have the ability to try things that maybe even are FDA approved, but to give yourself the chance even though you may not know what the different side effects you may face. How much do you think that has been really a change in how many years you may have left? How important is it for people to have this right to try different drugs that maybe aren't FDA approved yet?

Kristina Baum:
I think it's huge. And each patient has the option to do it or not. I think just having the choice to do it or not is really important. Fortunately, I had the choice, and I chose to do it just as there clearly has to be someone somewhere has to make the choice to want to try. And fortunately, there was a woman many years ago who had late stage melanoma much like me, who made the decision to try. And, fortunately, that woman is still alive and well today, over 15 years later.

Kristina Baum:
So, it can make such a big difference. Cancer advancements, especially in research, happens so fast that I was told that, when this whole thing was beginning with late stage melanoma, anything beyond six months old that I might read on the internet is likely obsolete at that time. So what that means is if you have a drug that can at least extend your life even a minimum of six months, it's worth it, because in that six months, new drugs might come online or become available or you might have access to, that you can try. And those drugs might continue to extend your life. So, you don't know always how your body might respond, but having the ability to try is important.

BeverlyHallberg:
And what do you attribute that to? The fact that in six months what was working then may be obsolete today because you have something that's newer and improved. Is it innovation in this country? What is it? Because we don't often hear about all the advancements that we have. Now, we do hear political candidates right now talking about they want to cure cancer. I know I've worked with people in the medical industry who do deal with cancer research, I have friends such as you who have gone through clinical trials. But what do you attribute the evolution in medical advancements, and when it comes to cancer research, what do you attribute that to, what environment?

Kristina Baum:
Yeah, so, for one, I'd like to say the candidates who are saying they're wanting to cure cancer, and more power to them. I'll take that pledge. I'm pretty sure anybody who has a loved one that's facing cancer would take that pledge.

Kristina Baum:
In terms of the environment, I think it's a combination of things. One is absolutely having innovation available is massively important. For one, CyberKnife radiation, which is what I had, is somewhat of a newer technology. It's also known as Gamma Knife radiation. That's massively important having. I know some hospitals are now doing proton therapy and different types of targeted therapies that can really make a big difference and just getting rid of those tumors and just eradicating cancer. So that is one piece of it.

Kristina Baum:
Two is, I would say, just having the education and research resources is really important, that a lot of these doctors that are up and coming, having them go into these fields is really important and attracting new talent and new skills and developing those skills with researchers that have already gone the distance is really important.

Kristina Baum:
I don't think we would be anywhere near where we are if there weren't doctors who thought that a cure would be possible, and just started having the courage and the bravery to move in that direction. And then having buy-in from institutions and other stakeholders in that quest is important.

Kristina Baum:
And what that buy-in can often look like is just putting research funding behind the appropriate organizations, whether that's private or public. I know for myself that I've been doing a lot of fundraising for the Melanoma Research Alliance, which 100% of their donations goes right into a research grants. And those research grants help fund the treatments much like the one I've been on. And that's where doctors can really take that funding and put it to use where it makes a big difference and making trials available for people to even be able to try in a hospital or an organized environment.

BeverlyHallberg:
And if you could explain a little bit just what it was like for you to go to Johns Hopkins and get your treatment once a month and go through this clinical trial. I know I was able to go with you one time. I learned a lot by doing that. I saw how many vials of blood they have to take from when you're going through a clinical trial. But what is the process like to go to a great hospital like that, have a great doctor, but also be a part of research that hopefully can help someone else too?

Kristina Baum:
Yeah, it is a little bit extra. Not extra cost, necessarily, but it is extra time and effort. You are providing body specimens to them. But for me it's really important that there's the hope that people will never have to go through this again. And if I can play some small role in that along the way, then for me it's worth it. And, for me, that, at times, means that I have to provide anywhere from 13 to 22 tubes of blood per time when I go once a month, then that's worth it.

Kristina Baum:
Sometimes that means extra paperwork. And sometimes that means that you have extra visits, and you have to have a research nurse in addition to your regular nurse and your regular doctor. If you're willing to do it, it's definitely a way to go, and it's a way that they can log data, which is helping them find a cure for other people. So I'm definitely a huge advocate for that.

Kristina Baum:
Clinical trials also mean that you get a little bit of extra attention. People may not always like that, but I found that if I had a symptom or I needed to talk to a doctor, they were available almost immediately because they want you to get the care that you need right away because these drugs are still in trial phase and there's a lot that's still unknown about them. So they need to be able to see you right away if needed and help you get what you need right away.

BeverlyHallberg:
So tell me what it's been like through this whole process to still be training for a marathon. I know that when you go through anything like this, your energy is zapped, you don't feel great. I know you had different side effects going through the immunotherapy that you did. How have you still been able to continue to go and push your body when it comes to running?

Kristina Baum:
Yeah, so I think it's definitely been up and down. It's not been something consistent. I think the month of may for me was amazing. I didn't have a lot of fatigue that whole month for some reason. And I did two or three bike races, and a triathlon, and that was great. But then June came and all of a sudden I was having a lot of fatigue again. So it's really just having to stay in tune.

Kristina Baum:
For me, being able to still train for this full marathon, and something I'm impatient about, it's been a huge dream to run the New York City Marathon and kick off hopefully one of six of Abbott World Major races. So this was a little bit of a scale down, which my doctor talked me off of doing a full Iron Man or a half Iron Man during treatment.

Kristina Baum:
So I'm just really thankful to have the ability to get up and go run. So I almost don't see it as this is something that I have to do. I see this as something that I get to do, because not everybody gets to go running every day. Running is something that I love. I can go put on a playlist or podcast and just go run and pray with the Lord and cry if I need to, and just think and be alone inside my own head for a while and processed. Running really helps me to feel physically strong. So if I'm feeling tired or weak, just trying to get out. Even if it's for one mile makes a big difference, because it helps me be able to feel like myself physically, and that makes a big difference. And I'm just thankful to the Lord that I get to get up and hopefully go running. And sometimes that's a process. Sometimes that's where, "Okay, I'm able to get up and I'm able to put on running clothes. Do I have enough energy to get to the door? Do I have enough energy to get out and stretch? And do I have enough energy to do a mile?" It's just little baby steps like that throughout the process of it.

Kristina Baum:
And, like I said, it's a little bit up and down. Two weeks ago I was put on prednisone, which is a corticosteroid, not to be confused with anabolic steroids, which are performance enhancing. These do the opposite. But once I did that, I did a great 12 and a half mile run. And then the week after I bottomed again.

Kristina Baum:
So it's just trial and error. And when it comes race day on November third, I don't know if it's realistic to expect that I can PR or not, but I have little benchmarks along the way. So, yeah.

BeverlyHallberg:
And just in wrapping up, I'm curious if people are listening right now and they have a loved one or they themselves, maybe they just learned they were diagnosed with cancer. When it comes to clinical trials, where can people get more information on even looking into a trial or going through immunotherapy? I know that you currently have, because of your experience and your third round of cancer, you have great connections with great doctors at Johns Hopkins. But what can people do if they really don't know where to turn and they've just gotten this type of diagnosis?

Kristina Baum:
Yeah, so there's a few different ways. Clinical trials are definitely open and readily available for public view online. I think there might even be a website, like clinical trials or something. The American Cancer Society has a portal to it, I believe. I know for sure Melanoma Research Alliance has a portal for people that are looking for melanoma clinical trials.

Kristina Baum:
Definitely recognizing you have a choice in your provider and who provides you with care. I didn't even know that I really had a choice until a year in, and that's when I moved up to Hopkins. And being at Hopkins has been a huge blessing. Fortunately, Hopkins is one of the top cancer research hospitals. So a lot of clinical trials are readily available there. And most doctors should be aware, or at least be aware of how to provide you with access to knowing about more clinical trials.

Kristina Baum:
The Melanoma Research Foundation is also another great resource to check out. A lot of them will have support groups or online support groups you can connect with that have people that can help you get connected to clinical trials. There's definitely endless possibilities, and most doctors and researchers want you to have that access and that ability to join a clinical trial if it's something you're interested in.

Kristina Baum:
And if you've exhausted your other options, it's definitely still a great item to turn to for hope. Because that's what I think most organizations want to do, is provide you with some sort of hope. And it is a great source of hope that you can get to, that can hopefully save you and save others and be a part of the grander scheme of hopefully eradicating this illness and finding a cure.

BeverlyHallberg:
And that leads to the final question to you. What has your doctor said to you most recently? I know that you're in remission right now. Does he give you any prognosis for the future and what this means for your life?

Kristina Baum:
Yeah, so there's still a lot we don't know about the drugs, of course. But what we have learned about, for me specifically, is that my body is very responsive to immunotherapy. So that is a really excellent sign, and for my longterm ability to live really. And right now he's very supportive for me being off treatment right now. And I have another MRI at the end of this month to check up. So I do have checkups every three months now. But he definitely wants me to take it easy and enjoy.

Kristina Baum:
I do think, in my conversations with him, having the fear of cancer returning is something that I'll probably always live with for the rest of my life. And that's just the reality of it. And I think one way that I've chosen to deal with that fear is just by trusting the Lord and resting in his sovereignty. And that's been a huge relief and part of how I make it day to day. Sometimes it takes better days than others to recognize that truth, but thankfully God is unchanging even though the circumstances of this world always are, and just moving towards that. And I'm really thankful and blessed to have an amazing medical team. And my oncologist is actually a triathlete. And my nurse practitioner was a college athlete, a runner.

Kristina Baum:
So I'm in really good hands when it comes to the competing interest of wanting to do athletics versus dealing with cancer and finding that balance, and then also having to work full-time. So I am so fortunate, and I'm so glad that they've been really supportive of just trying to help me take care of my body and maintain. So, yeah.

BeverlyHallberg:
And I can attest to you actually taking work phone calls and working on press releases while you're getting cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins. So, not only the fact that you work full-time and that your faith has carried you through, but also the fact that you've been an inspiration to so many people. And I think just something that I want to commend you on is just being real about the journey. I think you've been very real and the struggles, but also the hope that you have. And one of the things that is a motto for those who are cancer patients is the phrase, "Not today, cancer." And for you it's not today. It's not.

Kristina Baum:
That's right. Yep. Yeah, not today.

BeverlyHallberg:
Well, thank you so much for joining us, Kristina, and sharing your story. I really appreciate it.

Kristina Baum:
Thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate it. It's been a real treat.

BeverlyHallberg:
And thank you all for joining us. If you have more interest in the topic we discussed, you can, of course, follow Kristina on Twitter. Her handle is @KristinaBaum, and Kristina is spelled K-R-I-S-T-I-N-A, and last name is B-A-U-M. And of course check out iwf.org for all issues related to healthcare.

BeverlyHallberg:
I also wanted to let you know of another great podcast you should subscribe to in addition to She Thinks. It's called Problematic Women, and it's hosted by Kelsey Bolar and Laura Evans, where they both sort through the news to bring stories and interviews that are of particular interest to conservative leaning or, as we like to call them, problematic women. That is women whose views and opinions are often excluded or mocked by those on the so-called feminists left. Every Thursday, hear them talk about everything from pop culture to policy and politics, by searching for Problematic Women wherever you get your podcasts.

BeverlyHallberg:
Last, if you enjoyed this episode of She Thinks, do leave us a rating or a review, it does help. Also, we'd love it if you shared this episode, and do let your friends know where they can find more She Thinks episodes. From all of us here at Independent Women's Forum, thanks for listening.





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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