Salt Lake woman with metastatic cancer finds improved quality of life with advanced treatment, therapies

Erika Merrill, 48, was diagnosed with stage four metastatic cancer in February 2020. She has done several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. (Erika Merrill)


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Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

OGDEN, Utah — Doctors have become really good at treating cancer in the last 10 years and, through recent medical advancements and therapies, they're getting better at giving patients a better quality of life.

For 48-year-old Erika Merrill, simply living life is enough to make her happy.

"I love life!" she said. "Oh, my gosh, there's so much to do! And there's so many different people!"

When Erika Merrill was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in February 2020, she was determined to fight the cancer and preserve her quality of life.
When Erika Merrill was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in February 2020, she was determined to fight the cancer and preserve her quality of life. (Photo: Erika Merrill)

Just weeks before the pandemic started in February 2020, her entire world changed. She thought she was having a stroke when she couldn't feel her hands and she was slurring her words. She rushed to the hospital, but was told otherwise.

"He's just like, 'I have some bad news. It's bad,' and he just let me cry for a minute and then he was like, 'You have stage 4 cancer,'" she recalls.

It had metastasized nearly everywhere, including her brain and lungs. "I had over 50 tumors in my lungs. They looked like bubble wrap," she described.

Dr. Jaden Evans, a radiation oncologist at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, uses stereotactic radiosurgery to pinpoint cancerous tumors in Erika Merrill’s brain without damaging the healthy tissue in her brain. He plans the treatment out through programming on his computer before she receives it in person.
Dr. Jaden Evans, a radiation oncologist at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, uses stereotactic radiosurgery to pinpoint cancerous tumors in Erika Merrill’s brain without damaging the healthy tissue in her brain. He plans the treatment out through programming on his computer before she receives it in person. (Photo: Tanner Siegworth, KSL)

Merrill was determined not just to live, but to preserve her quality of life.

"So what do I need to do? Because we're going to fight this," she told her doctor. She admits though, treatment hasn't been easy.

"How do you do this? Like, how much can my body go through and still function?" she asks herself. "How much can I go through and still be me and not feel like I've lost who I am as a person? Hard."

Dr. Jaden Evans, a radiation oncologist at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, uses stereotactic radiosurgery to pinpoint cancerous tumors in Erika Merrill’s brain without damaging the healthy tissue in her brain. He plans the treatment out through programming on his computer before she receives it in person.
Dr. Jaden Evans, a radiation oncologist at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, uses stereotactic radiosurgery to pinpoint cancerous tumors in Erika Merrill’s brain without damaging the healthy tissue in her brain. He plans the treatment out through programming on his computer before she receives it in person. (Photo: Tanner Siegworth, KSL)

Dr. Jaden Evans, a radiation oncologist at Intermountain Healthcare's McKay-Dee Hospital, started Merrill on stereotactic radiosurgery, a form of high-dose radiation pinpointed to the cancerous tumor, opposed to whole-brain radiation, which used to be the standard.

"You're giving very high doses right into the tumor and you're just avoiding all the normal tissue," he said. "Obviously, you don't want to treat those critical structures and you want to only focus on where the cancer is … so it's targeting that spot precisely."

He said this targeted radiation therapy helps to protect her neurocognitive function.

"[The] ability to recall facts or words or recall memories even executive functioning," he explained. "Doing simple things like remembering to pay your bills or, you know, grocery lists."

"He works really hard to make sure that I still have function," Merrill said. "It lets me be me still, because we're only targeting the tumors. We're not targeting the healthy spots in my brain."

Erika Merrill, 48, was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic cancer in February 2020. She has done several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation since.
Erika Merrill, 48, was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic cancer in February 2020. She has done several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation since. (Photo: Erika Merrill)

All of the spots Evans has treated so far have gone away.

"We want to get rid of the cancer to the point where we're still maintaining the highest quality of life," he said.

Merrill also started rehabilitation therapy to sustain her body.

"Going through all of the treatments that you do, you lose a lot of the muscle in your body," she explained.

"They have techniques and different exercises that can help build a number of different functional abilities back," Evans said.

Erika Merrill thought she was having a stroke when she couldn’t feel her hands and was slurring her words. Instead, she was diagnosed with metastatic stage 4 cancer. She is undergoing treatment and is determined to preserve her quality of life.
Erika Merrill thought she was having a stroke when she couldn’t feel her hands and was slurring her words. Instead, she was diagnosed with metastatic stage 4 cancer. She is undergoing treatment and is determined to preserve her quality of life. (Photo: Erika Merrill)

"They start you at your pace. They don't expect you to overdo it. They make sure that you're being safe, (and) they teach you how to use the machines," Merrill said.

She was thrilled by the progress she was able to make.

"I got stronger, like way stronger, and I was able to walk easier and move my body easier. I wasn't in so much pain," she said with a big smile on her face. "As I found myself being stronger, I wanted to be more active."

Merrill also met with a counselor to set goals and review her diet to help her live the healthiest life possible so she can enjoy it with her family and friends.

"I love outdoors. I love the beach, I love the mountains," she said. "I love life. I want to live whatever life I can in the time that I've been given."

Merrill's perspective is admirable.

"You have to look for your good days, because you have bad days – and your good days, you just get to celebrate," she said. "I look for little wins every single day, little miracles … and sometimes it's getting out of bed and making breakfast."

Despite not always feeling well, Merrill is determined to give back to others.

"I get to live life. I love people and I want to give back and want to help as many people I can," she said. "I'm just grateful for the doctors that I have, for the treatments that they put me on, and that I can keep going."

Merrill encourages others to also keep going.

"What can you do in the short amount of time that you're here on this earth? How many people can you affect how many people can you interact with to make their lives better?" she said.

Photos

Aley Davis

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