Sometimes there are silver linings in stormy clouds.
In early 2007, Etsuko Bennett was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer—a gastrointestinal stromal tumor, or GIST—that caused a tumor to grow in her small intestine. “GIST doesn’t normally respond to traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation,” explains her husband, George. And, even if a GIST is surgically removed, “with this kind of cancer you can almost always count on it coming back.”
But, Etsuko had two things going for her. Because surgeons were able to completely remove her tumor, and because cancer had not been found anywhere else, she became eligible to participate in a clinical trial through the NorthBay Cancer Center that gave her access to a life-lengthening medicine.
The medicine—Gleevec—targets specific proteins within cancer cells and stops the cancer from growing. It is an approved drug for the treatment of certain leukemias and, in this setting, for some specific GISTs.
“Keni Horiuchi (oncology nurse specialist at the NorthBay Cancer Center) knew about the trial and told us about it. Etsuko was one of the last to make it in before the trial closed.”
As part of the clinical trial, Etsuko would take Gleevec for one year—with a nine-year follow-up—to see if it prevented any other tumors from growing. In her case, it did.
But, in early 2009, a year after ending the Gleevec trial, Etsuko again developed small lesions on her liver, George explains, and the NorthBay Cancer Center team referred the Bennetts to the Stanford Liver Center. The physicians who specialize in GIST there put her into another clinical trial to compare a new targeted therapy drug—Tasigna—to Gleevec. “This new drug is an improved version of Gleevec. After three months we did see the larger tumor had shrunk,” George says. And, if the tumor continues to shrink it may be removed.
“It has been an up and down battle,” he adds. “We’re hopeful the new drug will make her tumors smaller. Targeted therapies such as these are wonderful, miracle drugs.” The couple is grateful for all the advances in targeted therapies, he says, “because for us, there was nothing else out there.”