Medical innovation improves outcomes

June 12, 2013

I have been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the pancreas, a disease that’s long been considered not just incurable, but almost impossible to treat-a recalcitrant disease that some practitioners feel has given oncology a bad name. I was told my life would be measured in weeks.

I have been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the pancreas, a disease that’s long been considered not just incurable, but almost impossible to treat – a recalcitrant disease that some practitioners feel has given oncology a bad name.  I was told my life would be measured in weeks.

That was April 11, 2012.  I was 48 years old.

Now, a year later, my doctors say all the tests show I am currently tumor free. I have outlived my own shock at hearing the news, the sad and terrified looks of friends and family, and yes, even the expectations of my doctors. More important, I am not alone. Clinical trials of a new treatment regimen have begun to increase life expectancy for patients with this very difficult cancer. And the anniversary of my diagnosis – an anniversary my doctors never expected me to see – coincides with an important event the just took place in our nation’s capital.

Just about the time I was having my most recent scan in early April,  representatives of 100 or so patient advocacy organizations went to Washington, D.C., to rally in support of medical innovation, and to call for continued funding for medical research. I am living proof that it works, and every day, I meet others in my situation, for whom clinical trials and new treatment regimens are the best or only hope.

When doctors found my cancer, I accepted the diagnosis, but I refused to accept the prognosis. From the brink of hopelessness, I reached out to join a clinical trial of a new treatment underway at Scottsdale Healthcare Research Institute in partnership with the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix where I live. 

I was put on a combination of a standard chemotherapy along with a drug called protein-bound paclitaxel. It’s creamy colored because it contains albumin, a protein the tumors like to eat. And once the protein-bound paclitaxel is inside the tumor, it’s like a Trojan horse: the albumin releases a drug that eats the tumor from the inside out. It’s also nano-sized so it gets into the blood stream and into the tumor quickly and easily.

It’s working. My scans in February and early April showed no measurable signs of disease anywhere.  More importantly, I feel great and enjoy every day I get to be alive.  Not everyone responds this well, but the trial is pointing doctors in a new direction. It is medical innovation in progress, and I believe I will be a vehicle for advancing this progress.

So why the rally? Why the fight for funding? Some people question whether we as a society can afford the financial burden of research and medical care, even if the outcome is increased survival. They want to cut research funding and medical spending. But they are wrong.

I work in the healthcare industry and I know, humanitarian issues aside, keeping a patient alive and healthy is the most cost-effective care. It’s what I call a “virtuous circle” because the best financial outcome is that I survive and I continue to pay my way, and as I return to health, I use fewer medical resources, easing the burden on the healthcare system. It’s a virtuous circle because what’s best for the patient is best for the healthcare system,  and best for society as our productivity continues.

So I ventured into the unknown, I lost my hair, experienced a myriad other side effects, and I had no guarantee it would work. But here I am today because of a cascade of events that support medical innovation. It starts with an idea. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies develop drugs and pay for clinical trials; expert physicians conduct the trials; and patients like me take part. And as a bonus, I have continued to work throughout my treatment; yes, with the help of my wife, family and colleagues, but I have continued to pay back in many ways.

Is that worth our investment? Does that merit our support?

Let me answer this way. In the end I would say everyone’s precious life is measured in weeks. None of us knows how much time we have left. Our job is to make all of our lives as long, as comfortable and as worthwhile as possible. We can’t afford not to.