I’m Alive Today Because Some Gifted Medical Researchers Dared To Think Outside The Box

I’m Alive Today Because Some Gifted Medical Researchers Dared To Think Outside The Box

Written By Howard Young
November 7, 2012

Originally Published in the Huffington Post
Edited For Style and Current Context
Updated July, 2019

In November, 2019 I will be a 17 year pancreatic cancer survivor. The reason I’m alive today is because some incredibly gifted researchers dared to think out of the box, with the support of Stand Up To Cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is an efficient killer — it has passed breast cancer to become the third-leading cause of cancer death in me in the U.S. trailing only lung and colorectal cancers. Because it can be difficult to diagnose, pancreatic cancer is often not detected until it has reached advanced stages when it has metastasized and surgery is no longer an option. More than 70 percent of patients die within the first year of diagnosis.

I was first diagnosed on December 19, 2002, at the age of 42. It was a total shock — my life was going great, and I thought I was bulletproof. Now it seemed I’d been given a death sentence.

I was blessed to have had symptoms that allowed my cancer to be diagnosed early. Due to the size and location of my tumor, I was one of about 10 percent of pancreatic cancer patients who are eligible for surgery. The day after Christmas, my surgeon, Dr. George Daneker, performed a very complex surgery procedure called “The Whipple Procedure” to remove my tumor.

I then began a protocol of treatment that included various chemotherapies and radiation. Still, the odds were against me. The doctors told me that even if everything went well, I only had a 20 percent chance of surviving six months. But when my treatment was completed, it appeared that my cancer was gone. The limited methods of screening for pancreatic cancer growth made me want to do whatever I could to ensure that my cancer did not return.

I met Dr. Daniel Von Hoff of TGen (Translational Genomics Research Institute) in Phoenix, AZ, who is a leader in the effort to find a cure for pancreatic cancer. Dr. Von Hoff is the co-leader of Stand Up to Cancer’s Pancreatic Dream Team, a group of remarkable researchers at multiple institutions who are working to figure out how to “starve” cancer cells to death by depriving them of a specific nutrient that they require for survival.

Dr. Von Hoff explained a new method called molecular profiling that analyzes tumor cells to identify individual markers that can be targeted for pancreatic cancer treatment. My tumor tissue was analyzed and several tumor markers were identified. Dr. Von Hoff explained that one of these markers could be targeted with non-toxic chemotherapy that would attack these specific markers that appeared on my cancerous tumor’s cells. I received two chemotherapy treatments.

Five years after my original diagnosis, scans revealed that I had metastatic pancreatic cancer in my lungs. Once again my tissue was analyzed to identify targets. One of the targets identified is called SPARC. A recent clinical trial at the time was having success with tumor tissue that expressed this marker. I took this chemo treatment regimen for six months and it wiped out the remaining nodules in my lungs. I was then in complete remission.

I became involved with this new treatment because I wanted to do everything that I could do to beat this cancer. I encourage my fellow cancer patients to become involved with clinical trials in order to improve their opportunities to beat their cancers. As someone once told me, we are each really a statistic of one — we are one person fighting our own, specific cancer. We should expect and be positive about the potential that a clinical trial will cure our cancer. The Bible verse Hebrews 11:1 explains, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

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So many truly remarkable researchers and clinicians are working incredibly hard to give hope to some very sick people. They are on the front lines of the battle against cancer. We owe them our gratitude and our support.

The benefit of my having had the opportunity to utilize new treatments is that I am still alive, almost 16 years after my 2002 diagnosis. If I had not been given the opportunity to take advantage of this new treatment, I’m sure I would not be here today.

My cancer experience has been quite a wild ride for my whole family and our friends. I have been blessed with a great support group, starting with my wife, parents, and children. And I have been blessed with wonderful, brilliant doctors.

The reality is that cancer will, in some way, touch all of our lives. Working together — patients, researchers, clinicians, advocates — we can stand up to cancer and find the treatments that will help more people like me beat this horrible disease.

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