BILLINGS — In June of 2020, Alese Beckman was diagnosed with stage four cervical cancer after experiencing leg pain and noticing swelling. Due to pandemic lockdowns, she waited a few months before seeing a doctor, but after receiving the diagnosis, she was immediately scheduled for chemotherapy.
Her tumors began at her collarbone, followed to her stomach, with the largest in her pelvis. The mom of three first got the call from her doctor that something was wrong on vacation for a family member's wedding in Iowa.
"It was kind of nice because I was with my sister-in-law, who is a nurse practitioner and she understands all of the medical things, so I actually had Doctor Doll on speakerphone to walk me through everything," said Beckman, who lives in Edgar.
Her gynecologic oncologist at Intermountain Health, Liz Connor, saw Beckman every step of the way. After new tumors began growing after what seemed like several successful chemotherapy treatments, Connor recommended a new solution, immunotherapy, which uses the body's immune system to fight off cancer cells.
"The way that it works is that cancer is very good at hiding from the immune system. It puts up blockers to prevent the immune system from seeing that it doesn’t belong, and the way that immunotherapy works is it blocks that interaction so that our immune cells can identify and fight off cancer cells,” said Connor.
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women.
The immunotherapy treatment was originally listed as a backup for Beckman, or the "card in our back pocket," as she and her doctor referred to it. Radiation was added to assist it, and Beckman was able to make a full recovery after just one year.
"We did five weeks of radiation, and my next scan in October 2021, Oct. 6, is when I got the phone call that it was gone and my scan was clear, and I’ve been getting clear scans ever since," said Beckman.
“I think Alese represents what we’re seeing now with this cancer and how this therapy is really changing lives truly," said Connor. "Ten years ago, the statistics for cervical cancer were completely different. We did not have the range of medications to use that we do today, and I think this is completely changing the game from what I see with my patients.”
When the journey once seemed uncertain, Beckman, who is now 38, is grateful for the advancements in the care she received and an outcome that was better than expected.
"It's been a lifesaver, for real. You feel so much better. I hardly have any side effects from it," said Beckman.
This journey was difficult for Beckman, but it was also difficult for her children. Her oldest daughter, Isabelle Walter-Beckman, says it was a scary time to watch her mother go through treatments and was uncertain of the future.
"I've never seen my grandpa cry and the second they sat me down at the table, my grandpa just started crying and that's when I got super scared because I knew something was really wrong with my mom," said Walter-Beckman. "The first day I saw my mom without hair, it really hit me like a train, like this was real and not just going to go away with a week or two."
The teenager, who was 10 when her mom was diagnosed, is thankful that the treatment has brought her mom back to health.
"Thinking back when I was only 10 years old, I didn’t think I could possibly make it here with my mom. Like it’s just really crazy that she could be here with me. It’s truly a miracle.”
The journey has inspired her to one day pursue a career in cancer research and oncology. In an essay for her eighth-grade class, she wrote about how she does not want other families to go through what they went through.
"My mom had stage-four cancer and it wasn't supposed to go away," wrote Walter-Beckman. "She also told me that she was incurable and had 18 months to live, but she's almost two years cancer-free now and we had a miracle happen. I want to make miracles for other people now. That is my passion, to help people."
Intermountain Health is urging people with cervixes to get screened as soon as possible and to bring up any concerns with their doctor.
"Having routine pap smears, HPV testing with your gynecologist or primary care provider, is very, very important," said Connor. "We also have the HPV vaccine now, so we are effectively starting to see huge decreases in the rates of cervical cancer in patients in their 20s when they’ve received the HPV vaccination in their teens, so that is a huge step in reducing the instance of this cancer too."