One man’s mission

The fight to cure cancer became a personal mission for a Central Florida man last year after he lost his beloved wife of more than three decades to small cell lung cancer. His recent gift to the University of Florida Shands Cancer Center, made anonymously, established a research fund that takes aim at small cell carcinoma — an aggressive and deadly form of lung cancer.

“I lost my best friend and my love,” he said. “I was devastated to lose my wife and I don’t want anybody else to have to deal with this.”

There was no indication his wife, Janet, was ill in 2009 when the couple set off on their annual summer road trip. About mid-way into the journey, she began experiencing shortness of breath and nighttime coughing. Janet had a chest X-ray at a walk-in clinic when the couple reached Oregon, and she was told to return to Florida as soon as possible.

“We left our car and motor home in Oregon and flew back here,” the donor said. “She was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, and her doctor told us the chance for a cure was very, very slim, really none — I don’t think he wanted to say ‘none,’ but that’s what he was saying — and that he would try to extend her life as long as possible. That’s when I knew we were in big trouble.”

After 10 months battling the disease without complaint and with more concern for her husband than herself, Janet passed away. Years before ever becoming ill, Janet and her husband agreed that they would donate their bodies to science — according to those wishes, Janet’s body was donated for anatomical research at UF&Shands. Despite this, the donor felt he could do more.

“This cancer destroyed my wife’s and my life totally; I am so angry, and I wanted to go after it,” he said. “I felt it was my responsibility to do something, and I saw this as an opportunity to fight back.”
He chose to name the fund created by his gift the “Janet and I Fight Back with the Small Cell Cancer Research Fund.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths nationwide, and is responsible for more than 157,000 deaths annually — exceeding the number of deaths caused by colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. Small cell lung cancer, which accounts for about 15 percent of all lung cancers, is especially fast-growing and deadly. Even in patients who at first appear to have early stage disease, the tumor has often spread to other parts of the body and the chance of survival is slim.

“Although most patients initially improve following standard treatments for this disease, few can be cured and, unfortunately, the past 20 years of clinical trials dedicated to small cell lung cancer have failed to reverse this outcome,” said Frederic Kaye, M.D., professor of medicine and UF Shands Cancer Center researcher. “One of the reasons research in small cell lung cancer has lagged is because it’s such an aggressive tumor, and few, if any, patients undergo surgery to remove it. Because of that, there are limited biopsy samples available for research studies.”

Primary tumor samples are critical to cancer research because they allow scientists to understand the molecular and genetic mechanisms leading to cancer growth or suppression. Kaye’s lab was the first to identify a tumor suppressor gene in small cell lung cancer which helped define an important gene signaling pathway that underlies all types of lung cancer and he is eager to conduct additional genetic sequencing on those tumors and derived cell lines for research.

“One of the goals that we hope to achieve with this money is to undertake a complete genomic analysis of a collection of small cell lung cancer samples,” Kaye said. “That would enable us to look for recurrent genetic mutations that might give clues for improved diagnosis, but more importantly, to use as therapeutic targets to test in new, investigational clinical trials to treat patients.”

To take advantage of the funds, UF researchers will submit proposals to a committee, which will evaluate submissions based on originality, feasibility, quality of science, and potential for future independent funding or product development. This opportunity to directly advance the most promising research to improve patient treatments and survivorship is exactly what the donor had in mind when he made his gift. He has high hopes for small cell lung cancer patients of the future.

“I want them to have hope. We were basically given no hope; it was just because the doctor was being frank with us, and we appreciated that, but I would like to see somebody eventually have some hope and possibly even a cure,” he said.

To help advance the most promising research and innovative treatment methods for lung cancer at UF, contributions may be made to either the “Janet and I Fight Back with the Small Cell Cancer Research Fund” or the “Lung Cancer Research Fund.” For more information, visit www.cancer.ufl.edu, “Make a Gift.”

— Lindy McCollum-Brounley

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Summer 2011

From the Director’s Desk

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