Even with Cancer, There is a Road Forward
Deborah Dormady Letham, PhD

Even with Cancer, There is a Road Forward

My father’s second cancer diagnosis was not the Christmas greeting we expected. Fortunately, with innovative therapies, he has a good chance of beating it.

My Dad was diagnosed with cancer last December, the week before Christmas. As he bravely took the news, his family took on the stress.  I got the news while I was walking into work. My brother first mentioned the stroke scare. I stopped walking, but then he said it was not a stroke after all, our Dad was fine, so I started walking again.  Then he told me about the suspicious skin biopsy and the cancer diagnosis—squamous cell carcinoma—and I stopped dead in my tracks.

Cancer is the word everyone fears... 

His prostate cancer was scary enough a number of years back, but when caught early, like his was, the survival statistics were now outstandingly comforting. Our aging population more and more is in need of life-sustaining treatments. Seems like only a few years ago Dad was in the prime of his life; a multi-gallon blood donor and tireless volunteer helping transport organ donations with the Lion’s Club, helping to spread hope. Hearing the words cancer, once again, immediately set the family on edge.

A preliminary diagnosis and game plan that first day were all I could go on, and because there was a plan, I could resume walking. I knew this much: when science puts its best medicines on the market, when researchers, clinicians, drug manufacturers, work together, then there can be a plan and families can keep working the plan.

I am a scientist, a molecular biologist in a biologics testing lab. I've seen the DNA sequences of experimental cancer therapies move across my computer screen many times. I didn’t know the clinical names of the samples I was reviewing; all I knew was that we were to verify the sequences and help the companies with their plans.

This underscores a larger point. When we work in the pharmaceutical industry, we touch, if only for a moment, the action plans and hope of the families who might one day benefit from this work. As science advances, we will keep touching the lives of patients.

One such advance against cancer is the use of immune checkpoint inhibitors, recently approved by the FDA, which boosts the body’s immune responses to cancer cells. Because these cancer treatments home in on specific molecular targets, they yield fewer side effects than conventional chemotherapies.  My father might benefit from these breakthrough drugs, especially since his other medical issues prevent him from getting chemotherapy.

Innovations in skin cancer treatment

Squamous cell carcinomas are common skin cancers, often excised when caught early, but more difficult to treat when discovered in an advanced state. Combined treatments for certain cases, like immunotherapy coupled with radiation, provide an action plan with one of the best prognoses.

Monoclonal antibody treatments are also showing more and more promise for a variety of cancer types. They target cancer cells and stop them from overwhelming and suppressing the immune system. New clinical trials of these targeted therapies are attractive alternatives to harsher chemotherapy drugs.

Thankfully, there has been a dramatic decrease in cancer mortality rates—26% between 1991 and 2016. The aging population seems to be seeing more cancers as their life expectancy lengthens. The plans to fight cancer are becoming increasingly common. I know many stories of shrinking tumors, complete removals and remissions.  When caught early, prostate cancer alone has a near 100% 5-year survival rate compared to 70% just 40 years prior. Living in a geographical center of excellent medical care, it is actually quite commonplace to hear of friends travelling into the city for these “miracle cures” of specialized treatments, but my family is in a less cosmopolitan area and yet they are also able to have access to these immunotherapies.

Planning treatments and recovery

Which brings me back to my Dad. With no treatment the prognosis would have been gloomy, but with his chosen course of radiation and subsequent immunotherapy there is a good chance of halting the cancer. And he only has to travel 10 minutes to our local hospital treatment center. Even in snowy days, they can travel.

Dad’s doctor scheduled a full body scan after the New Year to see if the cancer had spread.  A couple days after the initial diagnosis I drove to my childhood home and we enjoyed our holiday time, having Christmas dinner and visiting with family, and of course spending time discussion my Dad’s course of treatment.  The only thing we could do was live in the moment, enjoy togetherness, and be thankful that there was a plan to rest our worries on. The window of opportunity to be home was special – and I was ever appreciative of just enough Christmas snow blanketing the trees.

The scan results arrived when I was back at work — the scans were clean, the cancer had not spread. It was regional only. Whew! Back to planning the treatments and recovery - feeling free to focus once again on the future, still knowing to keep walking in the present.

During this situation with my father, I coincidentally learned that friends, a husband and wife, were diagnosed simultaneously with cancer. Their Facebook pages filled up with encouraging messages —“You've got this"— and a flood of reminders from faithful friends that even with cancer, there is a plan. I posted my comments while taking a walk around our work complex:  “Keep working the plan that is working for you.”