Calling Doctor Hope

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When it comes to surviving cancer, I’ve always had this idea that faith and fact would meet one day. Not long ago, they were still worlds apart. There was medicine and there was superstition—Us and Them. When I was a kid, science fans loved to laugh at the people we called health food nuts. These, if I remember, included people who ate yogurt. Go figure. The two enemy camps were still incommunicado when I was first diagnosed, in 2001. I asked my first surgeon about vitamin supplements, and he could barely keep the snark off his face. Nothing has been proven, he said, in a way that let me know that nothing ever would be. I changed surgeons.

Of course the non-scientists had their own attitude, and plenty of it. Say “chemo” back in the high-holistic days and you had to be ready to take fire. It wasn’t enough to allow that chemo was a pain in the rear. No, chemo was worse than cancer.

If you could figure out a way back then to be objective, you had to suspect that a true healing path for cancer lay somewhere in between these extremes. And now it’s happening. We are living at a moment when—scientifically? miraculously? both?—this path has begun to materialize. Don’t get me wrong; a lot of the way forward is still in shadow. But this is no fairy tale. The path is there.

About a week ago, I got a ping from a fellow cancer warrior, inviting me to a lecture that night by a medical oncologist, Dr. Michael Castro. (Full disclosure: Dr. Castro’s lecture was presented by Cynvenio, for whom I guest-blog on this site.)

I checked my watch. If I was going, I had to jump in the car right then. I jumped—and in an hour, I found myself swimming in a realm of biotech knowledge so profound, it was like a dream.

Not being either an MD or a genius, I can’t quote you verbatim what Dr. Castro said. But here are a few of the unfamiliar terms I heard that night— plus a few definitions, in case you, like me, are not a science major.

Precision medicine: The expanding knowledge base that helps doctors treat each cancer, occurring in each patient, as an individual thing, with its own rules of engagement.

Molecular profiling: A method of testing that looks at each person’s cancer tumor and studies the genetic characteristics as well as any unique biomarkers.

Onco-texture: The varying textures in a single tumor. Understanding onco-texture may help predict how well the tumor will respond to a given course of therapy.

PI3K’s: Phosphoinositide 3-kinases—a family of enzymes involved in cellular functions such as cell growth, proliferation, differentiation, motility, survival and intracellular trafficking, which in turn can be involved in cancer. The PI3K pathway is where a lot of cancer-causing disruption begins.

ctDNA: Cell-free circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA), now being extensively studied as the source of noninvasive “real-time” biomarkers that can provide diagnostic and prognostic information. Thanks to liquid biopsy technology, ctDNA is giving us a better way look inside cancer and see how to fight it.

I could go on. It was dazzling to hear how much scientists understand about the workings of our cells and systems—and what makes these unbelievably complex systems go haywire.

But here’s what surprised me most. Describing one of his patients, Dr. Castro said, “We don’t have a drug for everything. So I also look at natural substances.” This man of science also prescribes green tea. Along with dietary prescriptions and other tools we would once have ascribed to health food nuts.

Dr. Castro is not the only medical oncologist who is making miraculous progress. Just a short trip over to YouTube will put you in touch with a dozen researchers who are closing in on cures for the many diseases we collectively refer to as cancer. Their process is not linear, either. Who knows what else we’ll learn along the way?

As it is, I’ve seen the future, and we can stop fighting. Health food nuts and science geeks—all our work is relevant. It’s all needed. A generation of physicians like Dr. Michael Castro are synthesizing their storehouses of knowledge to estimate whether a patient needs chemotherapy, immunotherapy, natural substances, or a combination of all three. This is neither hardline “Western” therapy nor alternative “Eastern” therapy. It’s integrative therapy. It’s faith and fact, in one unbroken circle. It’s the ground where one day we will be healed.


—Anne Stockwell

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