Aricca Wallace had it all under control. Then, in a moment, everything changed.
July 1, 2011, a Friday. Late morning. Her phone buzzed; she answered as she sat in her red Nissan Murano in the parking lot of Auto Zone on Fort Riley Boulevard. She was there to pick up her older son, Mason, helping with a car wash for Manhattan High wrestling. Curious about some odd symptoms since her last medical checkup, she expected the call.
“The doctor needs you and Matt to be here at noon,” the woman’s voice on the phone said.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Aricca said.
The voice: “It’s not.”
So Aricca and her husband of 13 years — her high school sweetheart, Matt Wallace — went to the office of Dr. Mark Gros, a Manhattan obstetrician-gynecologist. Just a week before, Gros’s son had played in a baseball game at CiCo Park with the Wallaces’ younger son, Marccus.
So it was tough for him to say the words: Cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma. Cervical cancer, spread to the lymph nodes.
Aricca (pronounced “Erika”) was a 34-year-old mother of two school-aged boys, a taskmaster who had a winning game plan for everything. She had annual physicals, including one that turned up nothing two months before. She didn’t smoke, didn’t drink much. She had risen quickly to sales management for Aflac insurance; her husband had recently started a new business. Her kids were terrific young athletes. She was in charge. Always.
After the crying, the disbelief, and a long night of margaritas at Coco Bolos with girlfriends, Aricca summoned the taskmaster inside: “Whatever we have to do, we’ll just do it and get it behind us,” she told herself.
Nearly a year later, after multiple rounds of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy had reduced her to collapsing on the bathroom floor, sick from treatment but still more riddled with cancer, hope faded.
She talked to friends about a funeral. She had been told she had less than a year to live, and — worst of all — she started to believe it.
One thought kept her from giving in: “I’m not leaving my boys.”
Ask a few folks about Aricca, and some themes quickly emerge.
“There’s never been a road block that she hasn’t been able to get over,” said Kim Harper, a close friend. “The word ‘no’ doesn’t mean anything to her.”
She runs tournaments for Manhattan Optimist Kids Wrestling. “She’s the ultimate wrestling mom,” said Joni Bunker, another close friend.
She gives pep talks to her son Marccus’ traveling baseball team, when even the head coach figures the game is out of reach.
“She’s nurturing,” said Steve Aschenbrenner, coach of that team, “but she’s tough.”
She was born in Minneapolis, Kan., the oldest of three daughters of Joni and Curtis Crosson. The girls helped work the family’s hog operation and wheat farm. She hated working outdoors; she was the cooking-and-sewing type. She wanted to be an accountant. She got straight A’s. She became president of her 4-H club.
“Being a farmer, you’ve got to be a fighter to accomplish anything,” said Joni Crosson, Aricca’s mother. “That’s how she was raised. Aricca is a very strong-willed, very determined business-like woman.”
Not completely angelic: Once, according to family lore, when she was supposed to be picking rye out in the fields, she crawled on her hands and knees back to the truck. Another time, when she was grounded, she walked miles into town with her youngest sister Tara, who she was supposed to be babysitting. Stubborn.
Her parents moved to Dodge City her freshman year of high school. She met Matt the summer before their senior year. They eventually went off to K-State together, got married during college, and never left Manhattan. Aricca worked as an office manager for Dara’s Fast Lane for seven years, then went into sales with Aflac insurance for 10.
Matt worked as a plumber. A couple of years ago, he started his own port-a-potty business called Cat Cans.
It started with nothing and is now booming by handling the business of construction sites, the K-State football stadium parking lot, and the annual Country Stampede music festival.
The phone call from her doctor’s office that hot July morning began a two-year barrage of tests, treatments, dashed hopes – and ultimately, perspective.
Dr. Gros referred Aricca to Dr. Verda Hunter-Hicks, a specialist at Research Medical Center in Kansas City. A scan revealed that the cancer had spread. Aricca immediately started chemotherapy every Monday, with radiation treatments Monday through Friday. She and her mother stayed in a Kansas City condo owned by Manhattan friends Dan and Stacy Hoffman, while Matt stayed home with the boys. Aricca and her mother traveled back to Manhattan on weekends; her mother drove her to Emporia to catch Mason’s first football game for Anthony Middle School in the fall of 2011. Aricca got sick on that trip — lost hair, stomach sickness and exhaustion were among the side effects — but wasn’t going to miss it for anything.
That routine lasted through October, 2011, when it appeared the original tumor had been eliminated.
“I thought it was all behind us,” she said.
Not even close. Turns out it had spread into her chest.
Time for a new plan: Local friends helped Aricca get a relatively quick appointment at the M.D. Anderson cancer center in Houston, perhaps the top cancer outfit in the country, where there was a clinical trial underway about cervical cancer. But the bottom line from the doctor there, in January, 2012: “They couldn’t cure it; they could only control it,” Aricca said. “They told me my body would give out from the chemo within a year.”
Her reaction: “Complete shock. Probably for the first time, I thought this could be the thing that takes me.”
Said Matt: “That was probably the toughest trip we had.” He and Aricca, stuck in Houston, just sat and cried.
Naturally a more reserved person, Matt said Aricca dragged him into uncomfortable conversations about life and death — a funeral, and what should happen with the kids. “You one hundred percent have to open up in your relationship and talk about absolutely everything,” he said.
What she focused on, she said, was “time with Matthew and the boys. That was all I cared about.”
Friends and family at this point assumed she was a dead woman walking. Marccus, then 9, said he was “pretty afraid” and “sad,” even though he said he never gave up faith in the doctors. Mason, then 13, said he was “scared and worried.”
Aricca did not give in. She figured she’d keep the chemo going to try to control the cancer, buy some time, and “maybe something else would come along.”
“I’m young, I’m a mom, and…it just couldn’t be true,” she thought.
So, 18 rounds of chemo, three days every three weeks. Her hair fell out again, and she was again sick and exhausted all the time. Aricca’s girlfriends and Matt took turns making the four-hour roundtrip to Kansas City all through the spring of 2012.
She kept living. She traveled to the Topeka Expocentre for Mason’s state wrestling tournament, where the kids wore teal bandanas (the color that symbolizes the battle against cervical cancer) and embraced her motto: “Win the Fight.” The wrestling team inspired her, she said, and, evidently, the reverse was also true: They won four state titles, a remarkable number.
Mason, in the 14-and-under division at 100 pounds, made it to the championship match, where he stared down an opponent he had never beaten. His mom was in the stands; his dad was on the floor next to the mat. Generally less expressive like his Dad, Mason made a vow: “I’m gonna win this for you, Mom.”
When they held up his hand as the state champion, he pointed up in the stands at Aricca.
That was a terrific day. But good ones stopped coming. She didn’t know quite how extensive the cancer had become, and she thought the chemo itself was poisoning her — which of course it was. A scan on April 16, 2012, showed that the treatment was doing no real good— the cancer was spreading.
“I started to have a little fear that ‘within a year’ was going to come to fruition,” she said. “All I was doing was getting sicker.”
She got the girlfriends together again at Coco Bolos to give directions: She wanted to be buried in a new black-and-white dress; she wanted those girls’ husbands not to serve as pallbearers, since the men would need to comfort their wives. She wanted red roses. She wanted “Amazing Grace,” and “On Eagles’ Wings.” The friends, shocked, took notes on napkins and their phones. They were all wrestling moms, so they talked about maybe holding the funeral in a sports arena.
“There was never a pity party,” friend Kim Harper said. “She was always worried about everybody else.”
She sat her parents down to tell them: “It’s over.”
She was still planning. Still in control. But she was vulnerable, like anybody.
“Her dad said, ‘What are you afraid of?,” recalled her mother, Joni Crosson. “She said, ‘I’m afraid of not being here when my boys grow up.’”
Dr. Hunter-Hicks, the Kansas City specialist, got a call in the spring of 2012 from Dr. Christian Hinrichs, a former UMKC student of hers who had just received approval for a clinical trial on a new way of treating HPV-caused cancer that had spread to other sites in the body. (Cervical cancer and some other forms of cancer are caused by a virus called HPV.) The study — being conducted at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. — was looking for participants. They had to be people out of any other treatment options; essentially, they would become lab experiments.
On May 4, 2012, Dr. Hunter-Hicks said: “You’re going to Bethesda.” Aricca said, “OK.”
The first step was a “very delicate” surgery to cut out a tumor very close to the aorta and near the heart and lungs. On Sunday in late June, she was supposed to fly from Manhattan to D.C. for the surgery. But she was in Kansas City to watch Marccus’ baseball team in a playoff game in the 9-and-under state tournament. The team had worn special teal shirts for her, and always broke their huddle between innings with one word: “Fight.”
She waited until the last possible minute to leave that game.
Although the clinical trial offered at least a glimmer, there wasn’t much hope. Nothing else had worked. The cancer was spreading. The clinical trial in Bethesda was just starting. Although everybody knew Aricca would fight to the very end, it was hard at that moment to envision a happy ending.
Dr. Hinrichs put it this way: “It was dire…There are no standard treatments with much chance of shrinking her tumors and none that offer a realistic hope of complete and long-lasting cancer remission.” The cancer was killing her. She had six months left.
Steve Aschenbrenner, the baseball coach, called timeout. Marccus was pitching, but he ran off the field to hug his mom goodbye.
“The lasting memory was not the game itself,” Aschenbrenner says. “The lasting memory was the way those boys fought for that game…and the long, long hug.”
Aricca was “Patient No. 2” in the trial. Only one other person had begun the treatment, and there was no evidence to indicate it was working.
“It just seemed like a good idea,” is really all the researchers could offer, according to Dr. Hinrichs, whose title is assistant clinical investigator in the surgery branch of the National Cancer Institute, under the hood of the National Institutes of Health. This is an “aggressive treatment,” Dr. Hinrichs said, combining “different elements of what we think will work.” In other words, they were throwing the kitchen sink at the disease.
The treatment is cutting-edge, although a similar approach has been used for years successfully against skin cancer. In Aricca, it worked like this, according to Dr. Hinrichs:
—They surgically removed one of several tumors.
—They cut the tumor into 24 pieces.
—They put the pieces of the tumor into tissue culture plates and grew what are called “T cells” that reacted to them. T cells are branches of the immune system that can recognize and kill particular targets, such as viruses. They recognize those viruses by the proteins the viruses create; the theory behind the treatment was that the T cells would also be able to recognize and kill tumor cells. The fact that cervical cancer is caused by a virus is part of the thinking behind this approach.
—They selected the best T cells for reactivity against the tumor cells, and “expanded them to massive numbers” in the lab, Dr. Hinrichs said.
—They gave her the chemo to deplete her immune system, creating a “better condition for T cell growth.” Doing so got rid of some of the mechanisms in the immune system that control T cells. Aricca described it as “getting me as close to death as possible.”
—They injected her with the T cells.
—They injected her with interleukin 2, a medicine that also promotes T cell growth.
When they injected her in August, 2012, she said she could sense immediately that something was happening.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “It was almost like I could feel the cells running around.”
Sixteen days of hospital bedrest later, she left. She returned in September, not knowing if it was working at all. “Mainly I just didn’t want cancer running rampant in my body,” she said.
When Dr. Hinrichs looked at the x-rays, he had to double-check to make sure they were the right ones. He called what he saw “amazing” and “unbelievable.”
The tumors had shrunk dramatically. The treatment was working.
“The most stunning thing is to see these x-rays with these big tumors that had just vanished,” Dr. Hinrichs said.
On Dec. 22, 2012, a scan showed no cancer at all.
Aricca sent Dr. Hinrichs — a St. Louis native — a K-State Christmas ornament that he put on his tree, and a Christmas card that he still has near his desk at home.
In March, 2013, Marccus — then a fourth-grader at Marlatt Elementary School — traveled to Bethesda with Aricca to meet the researchers who did the work in the lab to come up with the treatment. “Thanks for saving my mom,” he told them. That brought the researchers to their knees.
Now, she’s running on seven straight months of clean scans. She gets nervous before each checkup, knowing that something could go wrong. But she got the summer off of re-checks, so she’s been able to live a more normal life of watching Marccus’ baseball games and starting back to work.
They can’t say that they’ve “cured” her, because the cancer could return. But the cancer “has gone away completely.”
Dr. Hinrichs, whose career as a surgeon ended when cancer took one of his eyes, said Aricca’s result was “the first punch that has really landed in the fight back from that.”
So why did the treatment work on Aricca? “The short answer is, we don’t know,” Dr. Hinrichs said.
“Maybe,” Aricca said with a grin, “my white blood cells are stubborn like the rest of me.”
She hasn’t undergone a total personality transformation. “The workers out at Stampede (this June) will tell you that she’s back to 100 percent Aricca,” her mother said with a laugh. “She was very bossy in telling them what to do and how to do it.”
During a recent interview, she wore silver hoop earrings, sparkly blue nail polish and a white blouse while nursing an iced tea at Panera Bread. Her full head of black, teased hair had returned, as had an infectious smile.
But she carried a receipt book and a planner, and she had just gotten done bossing around employees in the handling of smelly portable toilets at a country music festival.
She also decided to boss around cancer — or rather, she decided not to let cancer boss her around during the entire medical journey. As she put it: “You control your life. Cancer doesn’t control it.”
She kept one priority in mind, and that was her boys: “At least my kids knew that I was going to do anything to beat it.”
But she has changed in some significant ways. She doesn’t butt heads with her younger sisters over small stuff as much. Hitting a sales goal isn’t as big a deal. She also says that her will to fight and win may have helped, but she has learned she’s not really in control. “Ultimately none of us has any say over when it’s our time to go,” she said. “It’s just the cards we were dealt.”
She travels more, just to make memories with Matt, Mason and Marccus. “She used to be ‘Aflac this and Aflac that,’” said friend Christine Sauder. “Now it’s family, family, family.”
The big question still lingers in Aricca’s mind: “I don’t know yet why I was spared.”
Spared is an appropriate word. At this point in the clinical trial, there have been 11 participants, Dr. Hinrichs said. In two, the treatment is recent enough that researchers can’t assess the effect. Of the remaining nine, seven had cervical cancer and two had cancer in their head and neck. Those two have had no positive response from the treatment. Of the seven cervical cancer cases, three have seen “significant shrinkage of the tumors,” Dr. Hinrichs said.
For one it was “very dramatic but short-term,” and for two it has been “very dramatic and long-term.”
The first of those two: a mother of two boys from Manhattan, Kansas, named Aricca Wallace.
If it weren’t for her success, Dr. Hinrichs said the other person who’s had a good response might never have joined the clinical trial. In a chance meeting at the clinic in Bethesda, Aricca encouraged her. She said to Aricca, “I already know you: You are ‘Patient No. 2’. I want to be like ‘Patient No. 2.’ I can beat this.”
So in certain circles, as Matt Wallace said, “she’s a rock star.”