When I was diagnosed with neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer in 2007, my gastroenterologist scrambled to find an oncologist who had experience treating my very rare disease. My options were quite limited, and the clock was ticking because the primary tumor that had taken up residence on my pancreas nine years earlier was making me sicker by the day.
Two medical facilities made the final cut: the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fl. and the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md. In the end I opted for Moffitt, because I felt that I my well-being would have been my doctor’s first priority, as opposed to the NIH where I was concerned that my involvement in a trial might take priority. The NIH nurse coordinator did email me that they were “eager” to get me into their tissue study, so I’m pretty sure my concerns were valid. Having such a rare disease, my insides became quite famous in 2007. Well done, Tissues!
As it turns out, two years later I switched to an oncologist at Johns Hopkins who said something very interesting: “I’m glad you haven’t tried chemo or radiation, because if you did, we would assume that the treatments were the reason your disease is stalled out, and we’d continue giving you them.” Almost four years since my diagnosis, my disease appears to be stopped in its tracks, and apparently it’s because my immune system is doing its job. If I chose the NIH back then, would they have put me in a trial right away, or would they have also decided to merely watch the disease since nothing really seemed to be progressing? We’ll never know.
One doctor at Hopkins told me that strengthening the immune system to fight cancer on its own is the future of treating the disease, rather than poisoning and radiating people and weakening their bodies as a result. There’s an article in the Washington Post today that discusses how the NIH is using its trials to strengthen immune systems. Here’s an excerpt:
“If we can train the immune system to kill — to take apart a tumor — with limited side effects, we can set in motion a dynamic, self-perpetuating anti-cancer response.” And perhaps change the course of medicine.
I love seeing that immunotherapy trials are happening (and I love that I’m not a part of them, quite frankly). Researchers are indeed looking to strengthen the immune system to combat cancer.
Here’s my plan: I’m going to keep strengthening my own immune system by eating my plant-based diet and exercising like a maniac, to slow down the progression of my disease so much that if one day way down the road I do need treatment, they will have already worked out how to do it through immunotherapy. Well done, Team! Keep at it!