~ Cancer Experiment Pays Off: Bellingham Woman Sees Pancreas Mend with Low-Dose Chemo

Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, 07-06-06

Jul. 6--When doctors told Bellingham's Linda Clark a year ago that she had pancreatic cancer, she wanted more than a short prognosis and sympathy.

But even the doctor who offered an experimental treatment option was at first skeptical he could help. The cancer, which kills most of its victims within months of diagnosis, was destroying her liver. Clark's skin would soon turn yellow.

"Usually when that happens, that's it," said Ben Chue, an oncologist at the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center.

Pancreatic cancer is not usually detected until the tumors have spread to nearby organs and surgery is no longer an option. Chemotherapy can help ease the pain of the disease but doesn't typically prolong life.

But Chue offered Clark an experimental therapy that had shown promising results with other pancreatic cancer patients. He wasn't sure it would reverse such advanced liver damage, though, and he offered no guarantees.

Clark didn't need them.

"This is where I need to be," Clark, 44, said she told her husband, Greg, after meeting with Chue. "He was different. I believed I needed something different."

Clark soon began small weekly doses of a bundle of cancer drugs. Chue has been studying low-dose chemotherapy since 1998 and believes delivering the drugs in lower, more frequent doses helps cut off the tumors' blood supply.

Chue said he's used the regimen with about a dozen people with pancreatic cancer, and all have seen their tumors shrink. Many of the patients are still battling the day-to-day effects of pancreatic cancer, and one patient has died. But he survived for a year, Chue said, about twice as long as people typically survive after diagnosis.

Chue has launched a small clinical trial to further test the therapy, in hopes of helping to find a better treatment for the disease.

"I'll bet my reputation this is the best treatment that's ever been for pancreatic cancer," he said.

Clark, meanwhile, has rebounded. The jaundice as well as many of the cancerous cells are gone, Chue said.

Her "tumor markers," measurements of the substances in her body linked to cancer growth, had ballooned to 8,000 around the time she started the treatment, Chue said. They plummeted to 20, normal range, after the treatment.

"Her disease is under control," he said. "We killed off a lot of the cancer, so she has more room to play with."

Relaxing at a cafe near her Bellingham home recently, Clark said she spends more time appreciating small things, like walks with her dog and time with her husband and two daughters. Her straw hat shielded her blue eyes from the sun, and covered the short brown hair that's growing back after last fall's round of chemotherapy.

She's still traveling to Seattle weekly for more chemotherapy, and struggles sometimes with nerve damage in her hands, caused by the drugs.

But she's also doing something that didn't seem likely a year ago - making plans. Perhaps she'll soon visit a friend in North Carolina, she said. Her youngest daughter will graduate soon from Washington State University, and she wonders about launching a business with her. Or, if her health holds out even longer, she'll go back to school to start a new career. When she was diagnosed, she was a retail store manager.

"I'm optimistic," she said. "Maybe because I realize I have to have a reason to live."

Reach Mary Lane Gallagher at 715-2285 or mary.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com.


Copyright (c) 2006, The Bellingham Herald, Bellingham, Wash.

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