UPDATED: March 19. 2018
Diagnosed: May 2014
Lost His Battle With Pancreatic Cancer: January 2018
Originally diagnosed in May of 2014 with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer and given just months to live, Phil Zeblisky now has no detectable tumors.
There is hope even for patients with advanced Stage 4 advanced Pancreatic Ductal Adencarcinmoma (PDA). Announced in February, 2014, a new course of action, prescribing chemotherapy based on genetic research has led to a Happy New Year for Phoenix resident Phil Zeblisky who benefited from cutting-edge clinical trial preformed by TGen, HonorHealth Medical Center Hospital, and the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center at HonorHealth.
When Zeblisky was diagnosed in May, 2014 with advanced metastatic pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, or PDA, doctors offered little hope, telling him he perhaps had only months to live. Like other types of pancreatic cancer, PDA has virtually few or no symptoms until it reaches an advanced metastatic stage when it is most difficult to treat.
Zeblisky and his wife, Kathy, kept looking for other options, and ultimately found medical oncologist Dr. Erkut Borazanci at the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center Clinical Trials, a partnership of the HonoHealth Network and the Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen.
“Dr. Borazanci was the first one who took the time to talk in-depth about my cancer and why he thought the particular mix of chemotherapy drugs he would prescribe for me would have the best chance to survive,” Zeblisky said.
Zeblisky was enthusiastic about the personalized approach to his treatment: “Dr. Borazanci’s openness and willingness to spend as much time as necessary talking with us, answering all of our questions, gave me a lot of confidence in him. That helped me decide to be part of his innovative approach to cancer fighting. It seemed to be the best option for me and to advance the science.”
Zeblisky’s individualized therapy was designed based on genetic research at TGen, a non-profit biomedical research center headquartered in Phoenix. He was placed on a combination therapy of Abraxane (nab-paclitaxel) and Gemcitabine, which because of previous studies at the TGen-HonorHealth clinical trials, was approved in September 2013 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a front-line therapy for advanced pancreatic cancer patients.
A third drug, Cisplatin, was added because of data gathered from studying patients tumors as part of TGen’s Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) pancreatic cancer dream team grant. Zeblisky was one of 10 patients in this unique clinical trial funded by Seena Magowitz Foundation.
“Our partnerships with the Seena Magowitz Foundation and SU2C are generating positive results in the clinic, and we are confident of making even greater strides in the future on behalf of our patients,” said Dr. Daniel D. Von Hoff, TGen’s Distinguished Professor and Physician-In-Chief, and Chief Scientific Officer for the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center clinical trials.
“We are finding that cancers are as individual as the humans who are affected by them,” said Dr. Borazanci, who also is an adjunct faculty member at TGen. “We are learning that people with certain DNA profiles are more susceptible to certain kinds of cancers.”
The best-known example of this, he noted, is the BRCA gene. When that gene mutates, it is more likely to cause breast cancer in women of Eastern European descent. The mutation has also been seen in pancreatic cancer.
“BRCA-ness is just one example of a type of DNA genetic profile that can lead to cancer and then be targeted with specific chemotherapy mixes,” Dr. Borazanci said. “There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different drug combinations that need to be matched to cancer patients and tested in clinical trials.”
Following six rounds of chemotherapy at the Virgina Piper Center, no trace of pancreatic cancer could be seen in any of Zeblisky’s medical images. After two more rounds of the combination therapy, the absence of any detectable cancer was confirmed.
Zeblisky received maximum benefit from the original clinical trial, and now is in a follow-up clinical study funded through TGen’s SU2C grant, testing the effectiveness of a maintenance therapy.
“The most surprising element of Phil’s story,” Dr. Borazanci said, “is that most patients with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer rarely live more than six months. Now, here it is over two years after he was diagnosed, and he’s feeling great and ready to return to work.”
“It’s amazing,” said Zeblisky, 57, who has a new perspective on life and is looking forward to returning full-time to his job as a CPA with the Maricopa County Superior Court. “When you have a cancer diagnosis, the way you look at life totally changes. It really becomes a matter of ‘carpe diem,’ seize the day. So, I’m living my life much more in the moment than I did before. I wish everybody a Happy New Year. I think it would be wonderful if they could see life through fresh eyes. It’s really great.”
Best of all, Dr. Borazanci said, is that Zeblisky’s experience is not unique. “Phil represents a new and growing group of patients with cancers previously thought to be untreatable, who are now receiving benefit through participation in clinical trials. We urge people with cancer to consider the possibility of participating in a clinical trial. Only about 5 percent of people who are eligible for participation in clinical trials ever enroll in research studies.
“That’s frustrating,” he said, “because clinical trials offer opportunities for patients whose cancers have not been treated effectively through existing drug therapies.”