Sometimes Choosing A Cancer Treatment Isn’t The Toughest Decision

52 People To Meet Posts, Uncategorized

 

Addison

Addison Adams

 

Hearing that your child has cancer sends your world into a tailspin. Hearing that they have a lethal form of brain cancer that really has no treatment path is devastating. It’s the kind of thing people carry with them for the rest of their lives.

One form of brain cancer, DIPG, has been had very few treatment advances in decades. A big part of the reason for this is that so little is known about how the cancer develops and grows. Typically, biopsies are not performed because of the tumor’s brainstem location, and what scientists do learn is often from tissue taken after a child has passed away. That is an issue, too, because it is a difficult conversation for most medical practitioners to have with these already vulnerable families.

We reached out to a very generous family who donated their daughter’s tissue to research, and they agreed to share their story. We hope that it will inspire others to think about whole brain tissue donation.

Interview with Kindra Adams, mom to Addison

When did you first start thinking about donating Addison’s tissue? 

Addison’s father and I knew from diagnosis that one way or another Addison would be tumor free.  We learned more about tumor donation after a Facebook page for Katherine The Brave posted about it.

Yes, Katherine the Brave’s page is well known in childhood cancer circles. Did you discuss the donation with people in your family and friends?

Yes, we discussed it with family and friends.  Everyone seemed very supportive of our decision.  We were going to do it no matter what, but it helps to have everyone on board.

Do you wish you had known more about tissue donation sooner?

Yes, it seems like information on donation is pretty hard to find unless you know about it already.  If it wasn’t for Katherine’s page, I’m not sure we would have known anything about it.  I’m also not sure we would have been real receptive to it if someone approached us. That’s what makes it more difficult to get the information out there.

What were your biggest concerns around donating her tissue? My biggest concern was that it wouldn’t grow.  That after it was removed and transported, that would just be the end.  I really wanted it to survive and hopefully help someone.  I know it might sound unusual, but I was also worried about how it would affect her appearance.  We wanted to be able to have an open casket, and it was nice to know that the incision wouldn’t be visible.

As a mom of a child who died from brain cancer, I totally get that. I don’t think it is an uncommon concern at all. Parents want to protect their child in every way, and this is no exception. Who answered your questions about the process? Dr. Monje .  We had been in contact prior to this because I was looking for clinical trials for Addison.  When I finally sent her the e-mail about donation, she set up a time and called me.  She explained everything, and we stayed in contact.  Even to this day, I can send her an e-mail and see how everything is going.

Dr. Monje’s lab contributes data to the open access data platform called Cavatica. Although Dr. Monje’s lab commits to putting 75% of the tumor tissue they receive into this platform, it is possible that Addison would have been part of the 25% that did not get shared. You were able to verify with Dr. Monje that Addison’s tissue was indeed shared, though, which is really cool.

Did you know much specifically about what her tissue might be used for?  Yes and no.  I know at the time of our phone call, Dr. Monje gave me lots of information. Unfortunately, my memory retention hasn’t been the best lately.

Yes, memory retention is frequently a problem during the grieving process. I definitely had some issues with that, too. How does in make you feel knowing her tissue is in the open access database, Cavatica?  Honestly, I’m thrilled that Addison can be a part of something this important.  We have learned that Addison is in the 20% of DIPG kids that are lacking a particular mutation so that makes her part in Cavatica even more important.

As a parent who also has a child with data in Cavatica, I can say that it does give you some comfort to know that their tumor tissue may help save another child’s life one day. 

Cavatica is the platform for data sharing that will be used to empower an upcoming DIPG trial being launched by the Pacific Pediatric Neuro Oncology Consortium. You can read more about that here.

 

 

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!

Saying goodbye

Uncategorized

This blog series we’re doing, 52 People You need to meet, was designed to introduce you to people living through the extraordinary circumstances that brain cancer introduces to life. Today, however, I want to introduce you to someone that you will never meet. You won’t meet her because she passed away this morning, and outside of my parents, was the largest single influence on my life.

Her name was Pauline Jones Elmore, and she was my maternal grandmother. “Miss Polly” to those who knew her about town, she was at once classy and supremely humble. Generous to a fault, she gave more of herself than anyone I’ve ever known – and I know some generous folks. She didn’t want an announcement in the paper, but she didn’t mention social media, so I’m going to write my own tribute to her here, knowing that any words will fail miserably in comparison to the woman.

When I was little, too young to remember, her first husband died. They had six wonderful kids, and my grandfather is remembered warmly by the family. When I was still small, she remarried the only man I remember as a grandfather, and he made such an impression that I named my daughter after him. My grandmother have us the gift of these wonderful men in our lives. Through her parental guidance, she also gave us the gifts of a close family with aunts, uncles, and cousins who are people I am proud to call my family.

Her open door – to family or strangers- taught me a lot about how to treat people in this world. Too often I worry that my house isn’t clean enough (hers was always spotless) or that i don’t have anything to offer (she always had food at the ready – and a candy bar or two if you knew where to look). I’m sure she worked hard to make her home welcoming, but it was mostly welcoming because of her. Over the years, various family members lived with her as get navigated a rough patch of life, and she was far more gracious about it than I think I would have been.

She loved music, and frequently surprised me with her choices. She wore colorful clothes in her prime, always with the perfect matching accessories. She liked to travel, but I think she likes being home more.

At her house, you could count on family dropping by, more food than any group of people should eat, and one or more spoiled dogs. When I was a kid, I remember her going to McDonald’s to get the dog a cheeseburger, and then almost as an aside, asking if I wanted one too.

I also remember one day, in the parking lot of that same McDonald’s, when she parked the car after going through the drive-thru for our food. I asked her if something was wrong, and she pointed to an old man walking down the street. He had on a long brown coat, and he looked pretty dirty. She said, “I’ve seen that man before, and I don’t think he has anywhere to stay. It’s gonna get cold tonight, and I’m gonna go give him some money so he can get a hotel room.” She took every bit of cash out of her wallet to give to him. That’s who my grandmother was in a nutshell.

She outlived two husbands, two of her children, and a few of her grandchildren. She was a pilar of strength showing that life goes on even after loss. She had faced death many times, and I know that she was ready for her own. That makes it slightly easier, but I don’t like the idea of a world without her.

Everything I am, I owe to her. (Yes, my parents did a great job, but without her, my mom wouldn’t even exist.) Even if I live as long as she did, I will never do half as much good for this world.

So today, on this day that she left earth to reunite with her loved ones in Heaven, I wanted to introduce you to my grandmother.

PS: The pic is of my two kids and “MawMaw”. David, I’m sure, was there waiting to give her a big hug when she reached Heaven’s gates. Austin will be here with me, carrying forward their legacy.