Who’s Really the Enemy Here?

David's Journey, Dragon Master Foundation, Uncategorized

hawking

When someone you love is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the gut reaction is to attack that disease. That’s certainly how we felt when David was diagnosed, and our initial efforts were focused on ending Glioblastoma (GBM) because that was the type of tumor David had. We were not involved in the world of research, and that seemed the most logical  course of action to us. To strike back at the thing that struck at us.

We thought we knew how to help. As we learned more, we realized that we needed to help find cures for brain cancer as a group of cancers because there is a lot that can be learned by studying them together. We also felt like we needed to help that community as a whole because they are so underserved. A broader goal brought us into contact with many more researchers, and many more ideas.

We were energized by some of the sharpest minds in research, and realized that the kind of analytics we wanted to do are really best empowered by studying all types of cancer, and even other diseases, in tandem. The most cutting-edge research points to cancer being mutations in genes and studying the mutations, regardless of the starting point in the body, is leading to new research pathways.
Cancer is a disease that has plagued humanity for generations. In all that time, we have mostly dealt with it as a disease of a particular body part. We now know that it is much more complicated than that, and we need to empower researchers to follow many pathways.
David had a bright and curious mind. For him, helping researchers was never really about helping himself. It was always about helping other people and solving the puzzle of cancer. Brain cancer is the beast that took David from us, and we would love to see that disease wiped out for good. But what if the answer to curing brain cancer lies in pancreatic cancer research? What if the answers we seek lie in the cure for  fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive? (That’s a super interesting rare disease that has been connected to the brain cancer DIPG. You can learn more about that here.)
It’s human nature to strike back at the thing that hits you. But do we really even know what that thing is? Dragon Master Foundation is focused on putting all of a patient’s information into one giant research platform. It’s a database, yes, but it is also a place where researchers can collaborate and gain access to biosamples. It has a patient’s full genomic data, but it also has their treatment path over time. It gives us a more complete picture of what is going on with the patient and what treatments are successful. It can help us understand why certain patients do well on a clinical trial and some don’t. And possibly most important, it looks at patients across many disease types to compare and contrast things like gene mutations. Instead of having one small group of researchers working on a problem, this platform makes it possible for any researcher, anywhere on the planet, to work on high quality data to help find cures.
Tomorrow is #GivingTuesday. It’s a time when people around the world put a few of their hard-earned dollars into the hands of a charity that they hope can change the world. I’m convinced that Dragon Master Foundation is one of the most deserving places you could make your donation. Here are a few of the reasons why:
  • No one at Dragon Master Foundation gets paid.
  • We direct all of our research dollars directly into this one project that is already speeding research. (One doctor said that it shaved a month and a half off of his typical tissue request workflow!)
  • This project has the potential to help patients with cancer as well as a host of other medical conditions.
  • Through this portal, research can be done on both adult and pediatric populations.
  • It was listed as part of Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Fact Sheet.
  • It is open access – meaning researchers don’t have to be part of a special consortium to access the data.
  • It is cloud based – meaning the researchers don’t have to download petabytes of data that can take days to acquire. It also means they are not dependent on their hospital’s computational power because they can do their work directly in the web.
Dragon Master Foundation isn’t the only foundation funding this. As of right now, there are 13 hospitals and more than twice as many foundations putting resources toward this project. However, many of them have a specific disease focus where they direct their resources. By donating through Dragon Master Foundation, you can be assured that your donation will go to building the infrastructure that will help all patients, all researchers. This isn’t just a gift to help researchers. This is a gift for mankind. This #GivingTuesday, you can  be part of the generation that changes the world.

The Top 9 Things You Need to Know When Your Child is Diagnosed With Cancer

David's Journey, Dragon Master Foundation, Uncategorized

carpeWhen David was diagnosed at 16, he was the first person in my immediate family to have a cancer diagnosis. We were shell shocked, to say the least. To be told that your seemingly healthy teen who had a bad headache is going to die… well, nothing prepares you for that. What happens next, though, is something I very much hope we can help parents prepare for.

David went to heaven four years ago, but we have stayed very active in the brain tumor community. It has been a huge part of my life for the last six years. (He was diagnosed in 2010.) I’ve learned a lot since then, some of it while David was in treatment, and some of it after he passed. All of it is information that I would rather forget, but it is important for parents like me to share their journeys so that those who follow after us can have a smoother path.

So here it goes, my top 9 tips for parents who’ve just heard that their child has cancer:

1. GET A SECOND OPINION. (Sorry for the all caps there, but really, this is important.) I don’t care that your doctor has been your family’s doctor for the last 3 decades. I don’t care if you are at one of the top hospitals in the country. Get a second opinion. Doctors are humans, and a lot of what happens in cancer treatments is up to their judgement. You may find that you don’t want to be on the path that they recommend. That isn’t a criticism of them. People are different. Paths are different. You almost always have to talk to more than one institution to know what all of your options are.

2. Do your research. Over and over again, I talk to families who say, “Well, our doctor said it is a ___ and we should do ___.” Then they just do it. We’ve been trained to honor medical professionals and trust their judgement. That’s not a bad thing. But being led around like a blind sheep can lead you into a treatment path that isn’t right for you or your child. When you are given the diagnosis, look it up. Start with major websites that can give you reliable information. A really good place to start is at https://www.cancer.gov/types

From there, look for foundations that specialize in the type of cancer that your child has. Since David had brain cancer, I can tell you that the sites I found useful were:

http://abc2.org/guidance/find-care – to find out which hospitals specialize in brain cancer – more on this later.

https://endbraincancer.org/we-can-help/ – to get guidance on what your next step should be. At the time I sought their advice, they were very frank about the type of testing they recommended and what to look for in a doctor, including referring me to a Neuro Oncologist.

3. If at all possible, go to a hospital that has a brain tumor team. ABC2.org only lists hospitals with a dedicated brain tumor team. The world of brain cancer research was virtually stagnant for many years, but in the recent couple of years, discoveries are being made very rapidly.  I don’t think it is practical to expect a doctor that deals with many types of cancer  to stay on top of every new treatment coming down the pike. Most will wait for the “tried and true” treatments before they change their recommendations. Brain cancer patients frequently don’t have that kind of time. Cutting edge treatments could mean the difference between life (or at least extended life) and death.

4. Ask every question you have. Write them down between appointments and don’t be shy about going through your list. The medical staff is there to help you and your child and the first step of that is making sure you understand what is going on.

5. Don’t be afraid to “fire” your doctor. I know that isn’t going to make me very popular with some folks, but here’s the deal. This is the single most stressful thing you will ever go through. You need to know that the doctor is 100% on your side and will fight for your child. If they ever make you feel like you are wasting their time, or your child doesn’t deserve treatment, move on.

6. Seek help. If you have found a doctor you like, but they are far away, ask for help. There are many foundations that fund travel and related expenses. Hospitals themselves sometimes have funds or auxiliary groups who can assist you. Crowdfunding websites help people raise money all the time for just this reason. You aren’t a slacker if you need help paying for all of this. Treatment is expensive. Time away from work means you have less money than normal. Going to doctor’s appointments means you need extra daycare, pet care, home care. It adds up. You can find a list of resources for brain cancer patients at http://www.dragonmasterfoundation.org. (Full disclosure: I’m President of that foundation.)

7. Make a Plan B. For everything. You may have a reliable vehicle, but what happens if your transmission blows? You have a friend picking up your other kids from school, but what happens when they get the flu? Most likely, you have people offering to help you, but they don’t really know what to help with. Get them involved in your plan B.

8. Make a treatment Plan B. I could have included this above, but this is super important. If your child has an aggressive cancer or one that has a high probability of recurrence, ask your doctor to tell you what the next line of treatment is. Time after time, people are lulled into a sense of security because treatment is going well, and the BAM! The cancer comes back. Everyone wants to believe the treatment will work, and if it fails, you have that same shock that came with diagnosis. Knowing what the next possible treatment is can really help you feel more prepared.

Side note: We were blindsided when David’s cancer spread. He had been on a clinical trial and was doing so well that his results were presented at a conference. We just knew he was going to beat his cancer. When it spread, we were kicked off the clinical trial and had to scramble to figure out what options were available for him.

9. Trust yourself. All of the tips above are for families who are prepared for an aggressive battle. However, not every family chooses that path. We were fortunate because David was a teenager and could tell us his wishes for treatment. Most parents are dealing with younger kids who may or may not understand the repercussions of treatment. We had an amazing neuro oncologist who would always lay out possible treatment options to us and the last choice was always, “or you can do nothing.” David had glioblastoma multiforme, and even now, six years later, there are no easy answers for that type of cancer. Brain cancer is a tricky, nasty beast. If there were one thing that was certain to work, I would recommend it, even if it made the child feel bad for a while. After all, what is six months of feeling bad compared to the potential 77 years of life lost when a child dies from cancer? But with brain cancer, there are no guarantees. Heck, for the aggressive cancers, there is very little hope. The families that push forward with treatment do so because it feels right for them, and frequently, because they want to help other people.

David was pretty adamant about helping others. His tissue was donated to research, and it is now part of an open access database that is empowering research around the globe. (This is also a project funded in part by Dragon Master Foundation. For more info on that, go to Cavatica.org.) It was a heart-breaking journey, but it was not in vain. I know that David would be thrilled to know that researchers are sharing data and working around the clock. We don’t know the answers yet, but I have every confidence that they are on the horizon.

I used to preface my help to people by saying “I’m JUST a mom…” because in the world of cancer research, I don’t want to come across as a doctor or researcher. However, my hard earned “momcology” degree is valuable, and I’m moving forward with a sense of purpose that my message is important and needs to be heard. Do you have tips you’d like to share for newly diagnosed patients? Please share them in the comments!

#Cavatica Cancer Research Database Has Launched!

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The day is finally here, and I am so excited! Today is the day the beta version of Cavatica launches to the cancer research world. A dream we had almost three years ago is coming true today. It’s not done. Technically, it will never be done. It will always be adding new patients and more information. Putting that aside, it isn’t as “done” as we want it to be. There is more functionality to add. There is plenty of DNA sequencing yet to be completed. But today, there is a pretty awesome database that is already unlike anything else cancer researchers have had access to before.

If you know a doctor or researcher, please tell them about this awesome resource. We will continue to build it out and make it better, but I think they will be blown away – even right now. (Say those last three words in your best Southern accent. That’s the only way to truly give them the emphasis they deserve.)

Here is the official press release:

The Children’s Brain Tumor Tissue Consortium (CBTTC) and the Pacific Pediatric NeuroOncology Consortium (PNOC) conclude Brain Cancer Awareness Month of May with the announcement of the Beta launch of Cavatica, a new cloud-based environment for securely storing, sharing and analyzing large volumes of pediatric brain tumor genomics data.

Cavatica will, for the first time, allow doctors, researchers and data scientists unparalleled access to pediatric brain tumor genomic data paired with a suite of analysis tools in a cloud computing environment that enables scalable, faster and more robust research. Upon its full release, Cavatica will host the largest standardized, integrated, and quality-controlled genomic database of pediatric brain cancer genomic data.

Working with Seven Bridges, a biomedical data analysis company, the eight CBTTC site members and 15 member hospitals of PNOC are further fulfilling their commitment earlier this year to the White House Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) with the launch of the Beta version of Cavatica being announced today. The Beta release will be open for subscribed end-user input and will be iteratively enhanced by ongoing implementation of advanced platform features and deposition of additional data sets over the coming months. These datasets will include additional pediatric cancer supporting pan-cancer pediatric data analysis in partnership with additional consortia. including the SU2C-St. Baldrick’s Pediatric Cancer Dream Team.

Sign up for access to the Beta release of Cavatica is available for researchers and data scientists by going to cavatica.org.

For more information or to schedule an interview, please contact the CBTTC at CBTTCadmin@email.chop.edu

Working Together for A Brighter Future

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This week I had the great pleasure of speaking with Dr. Peter Adamson, Group Chair of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG). For those of you unfamiliar with COG, more than 90% of  children and adolescents diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States are cared for at Children’s Oncology Group member institutions. Their goal is to cure all children and adolescents with cancer, reduce the short and long-term complications of cancer treatments, and determine the causes and find ways to prevent childhood cancer. That matches our mission pretty well, so I was excited to learn where we might be able to collaborate.

COG is currently focused on collecting biospecimens and clinical data. In layman’s terms, they are collecting cancer specimens (tissue, blood, etc) as well ad information on the child’s diagnosis, treatment and outcome. They have collected a massive amount of data over the past 50 years. They have well over a million biospecimens! More than 350,000 patients have shared data with them. They have biorepositories and databases in different parts of the country and work with over 220 hospitals in the US & Canada.

I am very impressed by what they have accomplished, but ultimately, I believe that the infrastructure we are building can improve the work they are doing. Their focus is collecting the specimens and data. Our focus is taking those specimens and data and making them a perpetual resource backed by robust computational power to allow them to collaborate with other researchers and also analyze and visualize the data in new ways.

To give you some idea of the scale of the data, let’s look at the numbers. There are approximately 14,000 children a year diagnosed with cancer in the US. Collecting a biospecimen would cost somewhere in the range of $1,000. (The NIH currently values that at around $500, but the actual institutional cost is thought to be much higher, thus my $1,000 figure.) So just to collect the biospecimens for those patients, you are looking at $140,000 per year. However, that is just scratching the surface of what needs to be done. Those specimens have to be stored (visualize giant freezers with robots to access the individual samples), categorized, and matched with corresponding clinical records.

Traditionally, most hospitals and foundations have been unwilling and/or unable to invest in the infrastructure that it would take to compile this amount of data. COG demonstrated real vision by collecting this data and they have been able to use it to forward science. Dragon Master Foundation believes that additional computational power, or “big data” analytics, will help them find the cures they seek even faster.

Dr. Adamson said he felt Dragon Master Foundation is taking “a sophisticated look at the challenge.” We know that building this type of computational infrastructure will be expensive, but we also know that it will exponentially decrease the amount of time it takes for researchers to collect and query data. Faster answers to their questions means faster cures for us.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are building a resource that will improve cancer research. It ultimately will help cancer researchers throughout the US, and probably throughout the world. It will make the work they have been doing for years more relevant.

To learn more about Dragon Master Foundation, please visit http://www.dragonmasterfoundation.org. To learn more about the Children’s Oncology Group, please visit projecteverychild.org or childrensoncologygroup.org .

What Are You Doing To Cure Cancer? You May Be Surprised At How Much Power You Have In This Battle.

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This morning I woke with a start and was completely wide awake. I am not a morning person, so this was very unusual for me. I had been awakened by my dream. In my dream, I was able to think a little more freely about some questions as they relate to cancer research, and I woke up super excited to put those questions down on paper.

The timing is perfect as four board members from Dragon Master Foundation are traveling to Philadelphia this week to meet with the Childhood Brain Tumor Tissue Consortium. This is the second meeting for Richard and I, but the first time we are able to take other board members. It is significant because the progress we can make in person is more collaborative than what we can discover over the phone. Rapport has been built, and I believe both teams are eager to forge a bond that will help us move this big data project forward.

I can’t really share every thing that is going through my mind, but there is a central issue that I think is key for all of us to understand. It starts with Ted Kennedy.

Ted Kennedy was diagnosed with GBM in 2008. He went to the best doctors money could buy, and he died anyway. There is much to be learned about brain cancer. My son, David, was diagnosed in 2010, and he died in 2012. He also had amazing doctors, and unlike Mr. Kennedy, David had great health and youth on his side. It didn’t help. The doctors and researchers didn’t have any new information to work with that might make a difference. There has been little progress in brain cancer research in the last few decades. However, in the last couple of years, scientists have discovered that GBM is not just one disease. There are at least four subtypes. It is easy to understand that these subtypes might all react differently to different treatments. Right?

And now for the really important part. If there are four subtypes of GBM that have just recently been discovered, what other things might we have been missing in the “big picture”? You see, we are in a revolutionary time in both science and technology. And one can barely keep up with the other. Researchers are pushing to the edge of their worlds – eager to go farther, faster. Data engineers are using bigger sets of data in new and innovative ways – eager to go farther, faster. But there are precious few resources being given to bring these two sets of people together. Imagine a researcher writing out all the questions he or she is trying to answer. There may be hundreds of possible scenarios they want to investigate. It would take a whole lab full of people months, or maybe even years, to answer all the questions. They might not ever be able to answer the questions because they simply don’t have access to enough data.

That is where the data engineers come in. They can take the data and program the computer to find similarities and differences, greatly reducing the number of man hours needed to get answers. The questions are hard, but the answers could be easy.

However, before any of that can happen, we have to build the database. The exciting thing for us is that the team at CBTTC has already begun doing that. They have started “small”, with childhood brain tumor patients, but their vision is big. We believe it is going to be able to scale quickly to include adult tumors and then even beyond brain cancer. This is the way research will be done in the future, and we are poised to make it happen now. NOW. And the faster this database is built, the faster they can save lives.

To say we are working with a sense of urgency is an understatement. It woke me up this morning. I think about it every day. I truly believe the only thing standing between us and a cure for cancer is this lack of a database. So we are going to build it, but we truly, desperately need your help.

Everyone can do something, and right now the thing we are going to need most is resources to build the database. We need citizens like you to care about a cure for cancer right now. You need to ask your hospitals if they are sharing data. Don’t accept no for an answer. We need to build this database big enough that they can all share -which is going to take a lot of money. The good news is that the major expense is in building the database. Once the resource is built, ongoing expenses will be a fraction of the start-up costs. So the help we need in the beginning will diminish over time. When the database is fully functional, it will save money elsewhere that could be re-allocated to fund the database.

Please share this story with everyone you know. It is so important that we get this database built. It is too late for my son, but there are so many other lives at stake. We can’t afford to wait for someone else to fix this problem. We have to do it ourselves. Now.

If you’d like to donate to the project, you can make a tax-deductible donation here:
http://www.dragonmasterfoundation.org/get-involved/

If you would like to plan a fundraiser in your area, please let me know and we can help you get started. We CAN do this!

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Cancer is a Completely Solvable Problem

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This is a completely shameless photo of our dog, Cooper. Because everyone reads stuff on the internet that has a cute animal pic.

Do we have your attention now? (This is a completely shameless photo of our dog, Cooper, because everyone reads stuff on the internet that has a cute animal pic.)

Did that headline get your attention? It certainly got my attention when a researcher said those words to me a few days ago. As a lot of you know, we have formed Dragon Master Foundation to build a database that will make cancer research easier, faster, and more effective.

As part of our research into what exists already, we identified a large public resource called canSAR which aims to support cancer research and drug discovery by bringing large volumes of different data together. I have spoken with the leader of the canSAR project, Bissan Al-Lazikani, who agreed with the importance of building a global clinical database to support clinicians and have more immediate return for the patients in the clinic. As canSAR is an open public resource, there are ample opportunities for future links and collaborations with Dragon Master Foundation which we will aim to pursue.

We are still in the very early stages of development, so some would say I shouldn’t be sharing this information with you. I believe, however, that we need all of you to understand what is lacking in the world of research today so that you can help fight for these tools that the researchers need.

There are a lot of really good causes out there. I have friends who are committed to helping the homeless, rescuing animals, or fighting for research dollars for a variety of diseases. I’m asking all of you to put those goals aside for one moment. What if you could really do something that would cure cancer? Not one type of cancer, or one group of patients. But cancer. Period. I think that this database can do that. And there are some pretty respectable researchers who also believe that.

So here’s what I need you to do. Tell people about the Dragon Master Foundation. Share our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/DragonMasterFoundation). Follow us on Twitter (https://twitter.com/DragonMasterFdn). Share our vision.

If you are in the medical profession, give us a quote we can use about how this type of database is important.

If you are a patient or caregiver who experienced a “well-oiled” communication machine during treatment, or conversely, a lack of communication between hospitals, please tell us what you witnessed. And please share our vision with any of the doctors on your team.

If you can give, please consider donating toward our database. It is a massive need, and we will need massive funding. But wouldn’t you like to have some small part in bringing about a cure for cancer?

At this point, we are run completely by dedicated volunteers. However, the time is fast approaching when we will need to bring on a project coordinator who can take our project to the next level. Foundation funding is key to making this happen.

Lastly, I’d like to thank all of you who participate in the blog, social media, or other efforts that support Dragon Master Foundation. This is a wild, amazing ride for me and I want all of you to come along. Dr. Anna Barker told me, “Changing the world is hard, but it can be done.” Let’s do this!