In recognition of National Cancer Survivors Day on June 5, we wanted to share how far cancer survivorship has come, our efforts at the University of Colorado Cancer Center to further the research that results in survivorship, and some of our survivor stories from the past year.
The American Cancer Society reports that the risk of dying from cancer in the United States has decreased by 32% over the past 28 years. Reasons for this decline include prevention, early detection, and advancements in treatment.
At the CU Cancer Center, we have seen the development of cancer vaccines and treatments that target specific mutations, advancements in immunotherapies, and the refinement and widespread use of diagnostic tools. We have also investigated ways to educate the public and prevent cancers from forming in the first place. Going forward, we are excited about the hard work of our members, which will further enhance our ability to bring these resources to our population and patients in an expedited manner.
As we know, survivorship takes many forms, from ongoing drug therapies to remission, and in many cases a cure. Every time we can meaningfully extend a cancer patient’s life or cure them with excellent quality of life is priceless.
We hope you find inspiration for your journey in our top 10 stories of survivorship from the past year as you celebrate this National Cancer Survivors Day.
Hank Baskett’s cancer journey began at a VA clinic in Amarillo, Texas, when he went to the VA to get checked out for a cough he’d had for a few months. After X-rays, an MRI, and a CT scan, the doctor told Hank there was cancer in his lungs, and the prognosis wasn’t good.
However, a recommendation to seek treatment with CU Cancer Center member Ross Camidge, MD, PhD, director of thoracic oncology at the CU School of Medicine changed Hank’s projected outcomes. Camidge says Hank’s treatment shows how far cancer care has come, particularly at the CU Cancer Center.
In May 2015, Jim White knew something was wrong. For weeks he felt constant exhaustion and an itch that wouldn’t go away. After undergoing some diagnostic testing, he found he had bile duct cancer.
White was seen by the CU Cancer Center multidisciplinary care team, which includes Richard Schulick, MD, MBA, director of the CU Cancer Center and chair of the Department of Surgery at CU School of Medicine.
White recovered in the hospital for several weeks after surgery, a time when Schulick came by his room every day. “I always knew I was in the best possible hands. I am absolutely convinced Dr. Schulick saved my life,” says White.
Ella Neal, a 22-year-old student at CU Boulder, knew something was seriously wrong. A persistent, unusual abdominal pain was keeping her up at night and distracting her from her studies. Neal went to a number of doctors, finally ending up in the multidisciplinary clinic for liver cancer at the CU Cancer Center, where transplant surgeon Megan Adams, MD, finally was able to solve the mystery. An orange-sized tumor in Neal’s liver needed to be removed.
Neal underwent adjuvant chemotherapy and immunotherapy — therapies that happen after surgery to wipe out any remaining cancer and to prevent the disease from recurring — with CU Cancer Center member Alexis Leal, MD.
“Ella is just a rock star. She hasn’t seemed to let this get her down. I’ve taken care of so many patients, and I think that kind of good attitude goes a long way,” Leal says.
International Triathlon Union World Champion Siri Lindley knew it was normal to have some aches and pains after so many years of training and competing. However, it wasn’t until she was preparing for hip surgery that she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a type of cancer that starts in the bone and then moves into the blood.
Under the care of doctors Daniel Pollyea, MD, and Jonathan Gutman, MD, at the CU Cancer Center, Lindley was offered a clinical trial option rather than traditional induction chemotherapy. The trial involved a drug called venetoclax, and Lindley responded to the treatment with minimal side effects, avoiding the lengthy hospital stay required by induction chemotherapy.
Today, Lindley is back to doing what she loves most -- public speaking and coaching a world-class group of triathletes. “I get to live!” Lindley says. “It is a miracle. I will make the most out of this life — I will love, I will share; every single moment of life is a gift. I am just so grateful.”
Gerry Turner was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in November 2017, after feeling ill while traveling. When he returned home, he went to see his primary care physician at UCHealth in Colorado Springs, who could see immediately that something was wrong. Scans showed a tumor on the head of the pancreas, and Turner was sent to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, one of the main clinical sites of the CU Cancer Center, for surgery and treatment.
Turner immediately bonded with Richard Schulick, MD, MBA, director of the CU Cancer Center, and chair of the Department of Surgery, who provided Turner’s care and performed his surgery. At his six-month review, Schulick explained to Turner that the multidisciplinary clinic had reviewed his case file and images and it was unanimous that they should maintain their course of treatment.
“When Dr. Schulick told me that, it gave me a lot of confidence,” Turner says. “I told him, ‘You have seen more of me than I’ve seen of myself, and you saved my life.’ There’s the lasting bond there, and it’s a two-way street. It shows his compassion. It’s more than a job for him. It’s a life.”
Mark Paskvan was trying to be practical. The exhaustion he was starting to feel after even a light workout was simply a side effect of growing older, he told himself. But the exhaustion continued and grew steadily worse. In 2017, after several tests, a CT scan revealed a spot on his pancreas, and results from a biopsy the next day confirmed it was cancer.
In January of 2018, Paskvan and his care team, which included Wells Messersmith, MD, CU Cancer Center associate director of clinical services and division head of medical oncology, and CU Cancer Center director Richard Schulick, MD, discovered that the tumor was wrapped around Paskvan’s hepatic artery, which supplies oxygenated blood to the liver. During a more than eight-hour Whipple procedure, Schulick and David Kuwayama, MD, were able to unwrap the tumor from around Paskvan’s hepatic artery and portal vein.
Paskvan journeyed back to himself in little moments that turned out to mean everything: By the end of July, he remembers feeling so good that he was able to get back on a bike. Then he finally started feeling hungry and ate non-stop until October. He was able to get back on his bike and rode it with a freedom he hadn’t felt in a long time.
Bill Mordecai’s treatment for prostate cancer began at the University of North Carolina Medical Center, where he received radiation treatments as part of his care. Soon after 68-year-old Mordecai’s radiation treatments were complete, he received the news that his son’s family in Colorado was expecting their first grandchild. Bill and his wife began planning a move to Colorado, and they inquired about transitioning Mordecai’s care.
Mordecai’s doctor immediately connected him with Thomas Flaig, MD, vice chancellor of research for the CU Denver and CU Anschutz Medical campuses, and medical oncologist Elizabeth Kessler, MD. Both are members of the CU Cancer Center.
I’ve been very pleased with Dr. Kessler, Eryn Callihan, PA-C, MPH, and everyone at UCHealth,” Mordecai says. “I was really nervous moving out here since my treatment had been going well at UNC, but it was a seamless transition. From the first visit with Dr. Kessler, I felt very comfortable. The way I look at it, I went from a 10 to a 10!”
The first time Caley Kurchinski had to think about a double mastectomy, she was only 16. Her mother had died at age 36 from breast cancer, and when Kurchinski became a teenager, her family physician began telling her she needed to get genetic testing.
It wasn’t until she was referred to the CU Cancer Center and the Hereditary Cancer Clinic at UCHealth, where she saw certified genetic counselor Michelle Springer, MS, an instructor of medical oncology at the CU School of Medicine, that Kurchinski began to understand she not only had options, but power in a situation that previously had made her feel powerless.
Kurchinski tested positive for an inherited BRCA2 mutation, one of the most common genes linked to hereditary breast cancer. The news could have felt overwhelming, Kurchinski says, “but it was very liberating to know that even if I did nothing, that was up to me. I had the power, and it wasn’t just something that was going to happen to me.”Kurchinski says consulting with Springer helped her feel more comfortable with her decision to get a preventative double mastectomy.
Kirsten Stewart was just putting on lotion, like she does every morning after her shower. That particular morning, though, she noticed something different: a lump that hadn’t been there before and that definitely wasn’t normal. She was only 30 years old.
What began in February 2019 turned into a breast cancer journey that Stewart has navigated with her family, with a multidisciplinary team at the CU Cancer Center and the Diane O’Connor Thompson Breast Center, and with a newfound drive to educate and advocate for younger women being screened for breast cancer.
“We’ve got to keep talking about how important it is for young women to get screened, to know if they have risk factors, to get genetic testing, to really know their bodies. If I hadn’t known my body and known that something was wrong, things could have turned out a lot different,” says Stewart.
Albus Brooks’ chondrosarcoma cancer diagnosis came at a time when it seemed as though everything was happening – he was 37 and soon to become president of the Denver City Council; his three children were ages 4, 6, and 9; he had just run the BOLDERBoulder 10K.
Brooks began treatment with the multidisciplinary treatment team at the CU Cancer Center, which included Breelyn Wilky, MD, associate professor of medical oncology and director of the sarcoma program. “Sarcomas are the cancers that no one knows about unless you have one or someone you love has one,” says Wilky.
Following his 2018 surgery, Brooks returned to a follow-up schedule of CT scans and MRIs every three months, then every six months, then every year. During a recent appointment with Wilky, he exuberantly tweeted, “That feeling when you hear from your doc, ‘You are cancer-free’” and included a photo showing his cancer-free scan.