Sorry for the lack of blog posts lately. Lots going on, most of which gets posted to some form of social media or the other, but I wanted to make sure you non-social media folks saw this! We partnered with a class at the University of Alabama to make a video to help explain what Dragon Master Foundation does. We think they did a great job… let me know what you think!
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.
If you have a “rare” cancer that doesn’t have a great standard of care, chances are you will be offered a clinical trial. To the general public (which is who we all are before that diagnosis is presented) clinical trials sound like a scary thing. To a cancer patient being told there is no cure, a clinical trial is a lifeline being tossed in a stormy sea. IF you catch it, it MIGHT help save your life.
So how do you pick a clinical trial? Well, first you have to find one that you qualify for. We’re going to assume that you have a doctor who is really helping you and is presenting you with some choices. So you have a couple of clinical trials and the “standard of care” to choose from. How do you decide? Right now, it’s a guessing game, but all of that will be changing rapidly as technology and open access data become more commonplace in the process.
- You will have more concrete data to help make decisions. I have seen some pretty impressive technology being developed by Clalit Research Institute in Israel that will help a doctor walk through a list of weighted questions with a patient that will help them make this difficult decision. (That program was developed using data made available from a clinical trial, and as more data becomes open access, I think we can expect to see more applications like this developed.) Each patient will be able to rate a list of possible side effects and based on their feedback, an algorithm will provide guidance on particular trials.
- You will know more about what “successful” patients look like. As data begins to become collected in one place, it is easier to compare patients on a genomic level. Researchers will be able to compile profiles of successful patients to help determine who has the greatest chance of success on a trial. My son participated in a clinical trial where one patient was doing really well. We had no idea if David would have the same results because there was very little data to tell us why the first patient was successful.
- The system will start to find you. Right now, clinical trials are found largely by patients and doctors sifting through websites like clinicaltrials.gov to find possible trials. In the future, doctors will enter your information into the computer, and then you will be pre-qualified based on your exact diagnosis and personal information. The computer will then present a list of potential trials that you can choose from.
This all might sound a little too good to be true, but the fact is, the infrastructure is already in place. Cavatica.org is an open access research platform that Dragon Master Foundation and others have been funding for more than three years now. It houses a patient’s full genome and biosamples from the patient, and sometimes the patient’s parents. It also links to the patient’s clinical records so we can have a longitudinal view of that patient. I believe it is the single most complete picture of a patient you can get, and we are working hard to make it available to everyone. (At the moment, it is largely working with pediatric brain cancer data, but the platform is built to expand as funding becomes available.)
Data like this can take a lot of the fear and guessing out of treatment, and it should lead us to more successful treatments and cures. We are on the cusp of a meaningful shift in cancer care, and I’m excited for this to start really impacting patients lives.
It occurred to me today that I don’t really get to talk to our supporters enough. Working on Dragon Master Foundation has turned into a full-time volunteer job for me, and most of the time, my head is down on one project or another. The work doesn’t stop coming, but I am so thankful to be in this position – doing this on behalf of cancer warriors. I wanted to stop for just a moment today, and let you know what your support has made possible this week. (And yes, it is only Tuesday!)
You helped give encouragement to a researcher who has developed a program around brain tumor tissue donation. We will be sharing a lot of his work over the next few months, but sometimes, they just need to hear that their work matters. As he told me about the extremely sacrificial gift he works with in his lab, I could hear the emotion in his voice. Tears gathered in my own eyes as I thought about the sacrifice our family has made, and I hope you all know that giving families this final way to make a difference is a truly valuable gift.
You helped gather feedback on the recently launched research platform, Cavatica, from a man who has dedicated most of his nearly 70 years on this planet to cancer research. He spoke with wonder in his voice of the things he is able to accomplish with this technology – things he never thought possible!
You helped give hope to a group of innovators who are developing a big data algorithm that can make treatment recommendations based on a patient’s DNA. They had been struggling to find the amount of data needed to test their theories, and now they have a source for their work.
These were conversations filled with hope, and that is what we are funding. When we started Dragon Master Foundation, it was because we had some audacious ideas about how to help researchers. Less than four years in, we have accomplished so many of the goals we set out to achieve. There is a real-time, open access platform where hospitals can share genomic and patient data. As I type, there are more than 15 hospitals sharing that data with agreed upon data standards. That alone is more than most people thought would be possible. Like the movie Field of Dreams, this is a real life “if you build it they will come” situation.
Which leads me to the best kind of problem to have. We can’t seem to fund the progress fast enough. We have delivered a tool to the nation’s top doctors who are eager to use it, but we need to fund the data to go inside. Putting the data into Cavatica means truly empowering precision medicine. It means we will be on our way to saving lives. If you’ve ever faced cancer, for yourself or a loved one, then you know that today matters.
There’s another great quote in Field of Dreams that applies to this situation. Archie Graham says, “We just don’t recognize life’s most significant moments while they’re happening. Back then I thought, “Well, there’ll be other days”. I didn’t realize that that was the only day.” It’s easy to let days slip by without taking action, but one day, there won’t be any more chances. We have to seize the opportunity now! Not because there won’t still be data to add tomorrow, but because there are lives being lost today. Every day is life or death to someone. So let’s work with urgency now to save more lives tomorrow.
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.
- 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.
When 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!
We are a few days into the Revlon “Love Is On” Campaign, and I’m super proud of our effort so far. For such a new foundation, we are really holding our own! I know a lot of our supporters are not on Facebook, so I wanted to do an update here on what you can get by helping Dragon Master Foundation in our quest to win a million dollars. You know, in case the warm fuzzies aren’t enough. 🙂
We announced that we will have a special “thank you” bundle for everyone who donates more than $150, and today, I’m going to tell you what that bundle includes:
- A Hope, Love, Cure, End Cancer Vinyl Cling – These are a great way to show that you support cancer research! You can put them on your car, on a dorm window, or the entrance to your business. Show the world you care!
- A Snazzy Awareness T-shirt – Ok, I know “snazzy” isn’t very descriptive, but the t-shirt will be changing each week. The first week’s shirt is a yellow gold with a grey imprint of our Hope, Love, Cure, End cancer design. It’s only available until Tuesday, September 20th, so be on the lookout for the next shirt after that. (Side note: If you donate more than $150 each week of the campaign, you get a new bundle each week!!)
- A CanPlan Planner – These are an awesome resource for people going through cancer treatment! It’s a leather hardcover design that just feels good to carry around, and the patient or caregiver that has it will feel better because they will have the information they need at their fingertips. This beautiful resource is available for purchase for $29.95 on their website (http://store.mycanplan.com/) or you can make a donation and get one as part of your bundle!
- A Two Pack of Dragon Snappets – This creative toy is a wonderful gift for kids battling cancer – or kids who aren’t battling cancer! Constructed of paper and rubber bands (no scissors or glue needed), the interactive toy lets them make their own dragon hand puppet and then have hours of imaginative fun while the dragon makes a satisfying “snap” sound when you close his mouth. Normally $9.99 (you can purchase extras here) this awesome gift will also be part of your bundle!
- The satisfaction of knowing you are making the world a better place. Really, the “stuff” is nice, but when it comes down to it, your donation will be helping us have a chance to talk to Revlon about open access cancer research and the need to break down the research silos that exist. It will be offering hope to patients with rare cancers who are currently told at diagnosis that they are terminal. It will put new and powerful tools into the hands of doctors and scientists who have dedicated their lives to finding cancer cures. That’s the very best gift of all.
You can donate to Dragon Master Foundation for the Love Is On Challenge by going here. You can donate directly to the foundation, or choose one of the team members who are helping us. Better yet, sign up to be on the team and help us spread the word! We need to be in the top 10 group by tomorrow to win the next challenge grant of $5,000, so every little bit today REALLY helps!
Like a rollercoaster as the last car eases over the top of the hill, we are hurtling forward after what felt like slow movement. The projects that we have been working on for the last three years are picking up speed. We have said all along that the way to change cancer research is through greater collaboration, and that message was loud and clear at this month’s Cancer Moonshot Summit at Howard University. There was an extremely diverse group of cancer research advocates brought together to hear Vice President Biden’s ideas and then work together to share our own ideas for how to bring about 10 years worth of change in the next five years. I think that idea might have scared some people, but we have already seen amazing advances using the Cavatica platform, so we know that kind of rapid improvement is possible.
I know that there were many events held around the country, and we even hosted an event at WSU in Wichita, but many of you may not have had a chance to really see what happened during the day of the Summit. I wanted to give you my perspective on the day, and I hope it fills you with the kind of hope I have for the future of cancer and disease research.
We started the morning with American icon Carol Burnett. She was delightful, as always, and the fact that she took the time to be there with us spoke volumes about how amazing this effort really is. Vice President Biden shared some of his frustration with us over costs and lack of progress, and we learned about some of the goals of the Cancer Moonshot initiative from Dr. Danielle Carnival, Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Director of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force.
There were several other speakers, all of whom underscored the need for this important gathering and continuing effort by the community. We broke into work sessions for the morning, and I was placed in the “Solving the Technical Challenges to Unleash the Power of Data” group. That was no big surprise!
I was incredibly humbled by the people in my workgroup. From industry veterans who have been working on making genomic data available like Warren Kibbe to bright, young innovators like Daniel Wagner who are challenging the way we look at and access the data. It was a fast-paced discussion that resulted in some great ideas.
We all returned to the general session for lunch where we could share ideas in a less-formatted way. I had the great pleasure of sitting with Dr. Charles Powell from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Our discussions covered everything from rare forms of Mesothelioma to the latest imaging technologies. There’s nothing quite like watching a doctor get a look at new technology that will help him do his job more effectively, and I had the pleasure of watching that at lunch. It is simply amazing what we are gaining access to through new technologies. We got a great look at how Siemen’s is turning analog scans into digital data that can be used for comparative analytics. That will be great in Cavatica!
After lunch, we heard some great speakers who spoke about collaboration. I think some of these were available on the live broadcasts, and they are available for viewing here:
Then we were off to our afternoon workgroup sessions. My session was on “Data: To What End?” and our insightful speaker to start the session was none other than David Agus.
We talked about existing collaborations, and I finally had a chance to mention Cavatica, the sharing platform we have been funding. The attendees seemed a little stunned that we already have 10 hospitals not only sharing digital data, but biosamples as well. There was still some sentiment among event attendees that it would be hard to get scientists to share their pre-publication data, but the doctors at the 10 Cavatica institutions are truly putting children, and indeed all humans, first. This level of collaboration may be unprecedented, but it is the wave of the future and that was evident from the number of people looking to learn more about our platform. I was so honored to be able to share about the many hospitals and nonprofits who have come together to build this amazing resource. I believe it could be the model by which all future research is done.
After a pretty exhilarating working group, we returned to the main hall to hear Greg Simon, Executive Director of the Cancer Moonshot. Dr. Adam Resnick and I got to speak with him for a few minutes after the event was over, and I felt like he was truly trying to pull together all the resources he can to make the end of cancer a reality in our lifetime.
The event ended with Dr. Biden and the VP Biden speaking to the crowd and asking for a prolonged commitment to working together for cures. I believe we have that commitment from everyone that attended this important event.
We returned home to find out that we have been accepted into the Revlon “Love Is On” Challenge. This is an amazing opportunity, not only to raise much needed funding for the research platform, but also to raise awareness for the platform and explain how it can improve research around the world. You’ll be hearing a lot from us about this, but there are two things you can do right now to make a huge difference:
- Sign up for our Thunderclap to announce the contest. We’ve used this before, and it is quick and easy. You give one-time permission to Thunderclap to send out a message on our behalf. The message will ask people to support Dragon Master Foundation in the “Love Is On” Challenge. Sign up here: http://thndr.me/ukBgiJ
- Sign up as a fundraiser for the “Love Is On” Challenge. This will give you a fundraising page of your own, which will allow you to easily share the challenge with your friends and family. We are asking that everyone make a minimum $10 donation because that is what is needed to count for the contest. Those $10 donations could easily be turned into ONE MILLION DOLLARS if we win the contest. We’ve won social media contests like this before, so we know with your help we can do it again.