By Emery Lay
For the Opelika Observer
Born and raised here in Lee County, Charlotte Patterson has fought many fires during her life, but none quite big as the battle she fought with cancer.
Today, several females work at the Opelika Fire Department. However, Patterson remembers a time when it was not always that way. Patterson was the first female firefighter in Opelika, paving the way for those to come.
“It was pretty stressful,” Patterson said of her time at the department. “Something new for me and something new for the guys … Some of them didn’t like me, some of them did.”
Patterson further described her job as a firefighter as “very stressful” and “very physical”. Yet, she stuck with it for 25 years, even atop her responsibilities as a paramedic.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than saving somebody’s life,” she said. “And I’ve been in EMS [Emergency Medical Services] for over 30 years.”
Her love for the medical field and saving people’s lives came far before her time as a firefighter, however. Patterson said she worked in the local hospital as a respiratory therapist for nearly 15 years before going into EMS.
When asked why she stuck around in Lee County for so long, Patterson simply said, “I don’t like big cities.”
Yet, Patterson began a new journey when she discovered she had endometrial cancer in May 2017. Patterson recalls that, though her mother had never suffered from cancer, her father died of liver cancer in 2014. Nonetheless, the news took Patterson by surprise, seeing as no one in her family had suffered endometrial cancer.
The process for treatment began with a hysterectomy, followed by five rounds of internal radiation. She received this treatment from Dr. Linda Farmer at East Alabama Medical Center [EAMC].
“They thought they got it all,” Patterson said. “But I kept having this excruciating pain in my right side and they didn’t know why my insurance wouldn’t pay for a PET scan.”
Nine months later, Patterson finally received the PET scan she so desperately needed. It was then that her doctors realized the cancer had metastasized into the muscle. Instantly, Patterson was put through 35 rounds of radiation. During this term, she lost nearly 60 pounds.
“Then, I started my chemo immediately,” Patterson said. “After the second round of chemo, my body rejected it. So, they had to discontinue, and my doctor told me there wasn’t anything she could do for me; that it was a very rare cancer and she had never seen it go to where it went to.”
Typically, the cancer would have moved to an organ, if anywhere. However, seeing as Patterson’s cancer had moved to a muscle, it was deemed inoperable. Patterson was left with one other option, presented to her by Dr. Farmer: receive a trial treatment from Dr. Charles Leath at the University of Alabama at Birmingham [UAB].
After having her bloodwork done and labs checked, Patterson began her trial treatments in 2018 at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB. She reported that the treatments did not make her sick, nor did she lose her hair as she had with her chemo treatments.
“It just makes you a little tired, [but] it’s a quick treatment,” Patterson said.
The medicine would be called in from the pharmacy and arrive in 30 little, frozen vials. Patterson said they would thaw out the bottles, mix the formula and send it UAB. Once it arrived, it typically only takes 30 minutes to infuse and receive it. Thanks to her trial treatments, Patterson is now in remission, though she still receives weekly preventative treatments.
From her firefighting days, Patterson said she learned determination and brought this with her into her fight against cancer. Yet even Patterson was not immune to the perils of 2020. At the end of July, Patterson contracted COVID-19, causing her to miss a full month of treatment.
“I was already in remission [so] they weren’t real worried about me missing those two treatments,” Patterson said. “Their concern was just to get me over the COVID.”
When Patterson received her negative COVID test, she went right back to getting her treatments again. Now, she has been vaccinated, receiving early access as a first responder. Even today, however, she still feels the effects of her virus last July.
Today, the treatment Patterson received is nearly discontinued. There remain two other women at UAB receiving the treatment, which is keeping their cancer contained and withholding it from spreading. Remarkably, Patterson is the only one in the country to receive the trial treatment and fully get rid of cancer.
“They had no idea it would get rid of it,” she said. “To this day, they don’t know why it got rid of mine.”
This is why Patterson is working to find ways to connect other cancer fighters — whose bodies, like hers, are not responsive to the chemo — with the trial treatments at UAB. She encourages those who are currently fighting cancer to speak to their oncologist, and then reach out to the staff at UAB.
“Because they have not just the treatment I’m on, but they have, I couldn’t tell you how many trials up there,” Patterson said. “They have a trial treatment for just about everything.”
For those not currently battling cancer, Patterson demands, “get those checkups, get those mammograms, every year.”
Through COVID and cancer, Patterson has fought tirelessly. 2021 will mark Patterson’s second year in remission.
“You just got to keep hope and not give up. Especially when you went through chemo and it didn’t work, you get depressed, you get discouraged and you just want to quit everything because I went through all of that. But I fought it, and with the help from my nurses at UAB … And, of course, Dr. Leath.”
Patterson affectionately calls one of her nurses, Terry, her “Hard Rock”. When Terry would see Patterson get down, she would firmly say, “I know you’re stronger than that.” Now, Patterson feeds nearly 50 doctors and nurses lunch every other week when she goes in for her treatments.