Lucky Us! How New Medicines Are Cheating Death

March 20, 2015
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Andrew at a recent Patient Power lung cancer town meeting

Andrew at a recent Patient Power lung cancer town meeting

Andrew at a recent Patient Power lung cancer town meeting

Andrew at a recent Patient Power lung cancer town meeting

It hit me again the other day as I hosted a lung cancer event in Tampa, Florida. If we get sick, aren’t we lucky if medical science—just then—has something new, either approved or in a promising clinical trial, that can help us get well?

Floridian Pam Griffith was dying from advanced lung cancer. Standard drugs weren’t working, and the tumors were obvious in several places in her body. With some effort, she was fortunate to enter a clinical trial for a new kind of medicine, a “checkpoint inhibitor” that allows her immune system to not be outfoxed by cancer cells. It has worked. Pam has gone from almost being on her deathbed to playing golf three times a week and may step that up now to four. She feels very good, and—having just met her in person—she looks great. Another man I met, Tony Benchina, was also dying. Soon after retiring after 41 years as a family physician, he got the kind of bad news he had given many others. Again, standard medicines weren’t working, and the new medicine that worked for Pam caused problematic side effects for Tony. But, thank God, there was yet something else that was new. It’s not approved yet, so Tony is in a clinical trial. But it is working. He is gardening and cooking once again. Remember, we are talking about the cancer that takes more lives than any other—lung cancer. This is so hopeful!

In a couple of weeks, I will see with my own eyes that story emerging in two other cancers, melanoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). I have CLL and am doing well, but that is not the same story for everyone. Those two diseases, when they advance, are killers. In Phoenix, I will have the honor on the weekend of March 28-29, to host town meetings for people with melanoma and CLL for the Patient Empowerment Network and partners including the Melanoma Research Alliance, the CLL Global Research Foundation, Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center and MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. In these conditions too, people who would otherwise be near death are living well. Breakthrough medicines are here and with more coming—mostly daily pills—to help turn off the cancer cells or to allow the immune system to recognize and kill the cancer cells it missed the first time around.

I am meeting people who have the good fortune to be sick at a time when there are truly breakthroughs to give them back better health. When you meet scores of people like this, you feel grateful to the often unseen researchers who made this happen.

At these town meetings, we discuss how you can gain access to such breakthroughs. Often it starts with being in a clinical trial—it did for me with CLL way back in 2000. Or it may be getting on a new medicine soon after it is approved, that happened for me in 2012 when I developed a second cancer, myelofibrosis, and, voila, there was a new drug to control it. Lucky me!

Of course, there are obstacles, you or family members may be afraid of you becoming a “guinea pig” in a clinical trial, or the requirements and travel for checkups may be too tough. You may have insurance issues, or your local doctor, who you like, may not be in the know. After all, how can a general doctor keep up on everything that is new or promising? We discuss all of these issues on Patient Power all the time, so please join our community, so you are “in the know.” And, if you can, attend one of our upcoming town meetings.

There is not a new medicine for everything. Sadly, many people with advanced cancers do not have a breakthrough to count on. But there is a change. Wouldn’t it be great if the change was happening in the condition that afflicts you right now? If that is happening, be sure you can take advantage of it!