Friday, February 13, 2015

Surviving Terminal Cancer

One of the many things that has surprised and frustrated me since my family learned about my dad's diagnosis of brain cancer is the lack of awareness and knowledge possessed by the medical world as a whole about the specifics of Glioblastoma Multiforme, or GBM.  I understand that the average person probably hasn't ever heard of GBM. Because it's rare, it's just not something that most people have ever had to know about.  Unlike more common types of cancer like breast cancer, lung cancer, and prostate cancer, most people probably don't know someone who has had GBM (lucky for them).  I find it appalling, though, that the medical community, outside of oncologists and neurosurgeons, by and large has never even heard of the diagnosis.  

Last fall, I went to a family doctor to get established as a new patient in the practice.  When the physician came into the room, she introduced herself and then sat down on the rolling stool.  As she asked me questions about my medical history and about my family's medical history, she typed in my answers on a laptop computer.  Eventually we came to the part where she asked about my parents' health, and I told her that my dad had died of GBM.  "How old was he?" she asked, and I gave her the same information that I have given many times about how he was only 67 and was active and seemed to be the picture of health.  In fact, I told her, he was training for an Ironman triathlon.  "Did he swim in a lake to train for that?" she asked, which in all honestly I thought was a little off-topic.  Yes, I told her.  "Oh," she said, "is that where he got the GBM?"  

Her question disoriented me, and it took me a minute to respond. "No," I said, trying really hard to control the anger I felt creeping into my body. "The cause of brain cancer is unknown." She blinked a few times and then said, "Oh!  I'm sorry - I thought GBM was a parasite," she said.

I liked this doctor; she seemed thorough and smart and kind, but the exchange brought to my attention yet again how much of a gap there is in what medical professionals are being taught about this disease.  

That's one reason I am so glad whenever I see GBM featured in the media as it will be in the soon-to-be-released film "Surviving Terminal Cancer" aimed at promoting patient advocacy and public education about cancer and research. 

The film features the story of a man who has lived for 19 years after he was diagnosed with GBM, a disease that has a median survival rate of 14.6 months with the accepted protocol treatment:

This film charts the remarkable story of Ben Williams, professor emeritus of experimental psychology at University of California, San Diego. Diagnosed in 1995 with the most lethal cancer known to medicine, a primary brain tumour called glioblastoma multiforme, he was given just a few months to live. But a natural born maverick, and rigorous scientist, Ben decided he would not go down without a fight. Nineteen years later his story is an inspiration to patients the world over, whilst his case is dismissed by the medical community as just one of a handful of statistical outliers.

"Why are we sticking with a treatment protocol that obviously doesn't work?" the filmmakers ask, as anyone who learns about Ben's story will ask.  The film looks at several less well-known treatment options for cancers like GBM, including some off-brand uses of certain medications and vaccines, like the modified polio vaccine that is currently being used at Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University (where we took my dad for treatment, although he got a different type of treatment, not a vaccine). 

Another reason that I am so interested in this film is that I personally interacted with Ben Williams through email correspondence during the time that my dad was sick.  I connected with Ben when I came across his story on a website called Clinical Trials and Noteworthy Treatments for Brain Tumors during one of the many late-night Internet searches I was desperately conducting.  I sent him a message through the website with a brief description of my dad's medical information, closing by saying "We want to be as thorough as possible in looking at treatment options for both now and in the future.  Your story is among the few things keeping us going as we begin our battle with this terrible disease.  I would love to get your advice if possible."

He emailed me in response later that same day:

With that, he and I entered into a fast-paced exchange of emails, with the communication mostly consisting of me asking questions and him providing more in-depth advice and information about what the data in the research had shown about various treatment regiments, including the use of several types of chemotherapy other than what my dad was taking, off-label use of medications like calcium channel blockers, and various vitamin and herbal supplements.  He had a remarkable way of explaining very complex scientific and medical issues, like gene segments and pharmacological cross-tolerance; I felt like I had access to someone who knew something that might possibly save my dad's life.  I read and reread every email he sent and made long lists of questions which I later posed to Dad's oncologist.  Instead of thinking "Why him? How did he get this horrible disease when he seemed to have everything going in his favor?" I began to catch myself thinking, "Why not him?  Why can't he be the one to beat the odds like Ben has been?"  I believed that we would find a treatment that would work for him, and I believed that he would be ok.

But, as it turned out, I was wrong. Dad didn't get better; in fact, he was getting worse by the day at that point.  Four days after I got the last email from Ben, which included specifics about what he felt we should ask the oncologist to consider, Dad was taken again by ambulance to the hospital, and, although we did not know it at the time, we were propelled into what ended up being the beginning of the end.