Howard Young has defied the odds by surviving pancreatic cancer. He’s lived to walk two daughters down the aisle at their weddings, welcome a new grandchild, and celebrate many family and friend’s birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries.
But he wants this victory to be more. He wants a cure. He wants to help others with the same diagnosis. So, he started a support group at his church. He became active in PanCAN, a national pancreatic cancer support group, and he’s shared his story to give others hope: from one-on-one discussions to appearing with Katie Couric on Stand Up To Cancer. “I want to provide hope to others that someone can have Stage 4 pancreatic cancer three times and still recover and lead a normal life,” he says.
In addition to increasing awareness, he’s organized and participated in events to raise substantial funding for research: he started the Atlanta Golf Classic in 2010, participated in the Team Hope Walk, asked people to sponsor him as he ran the Peachtree Road Race, and has done fundraising through his business, General Wholesale Beer Company in Atlanta. He was instrumental in getting his alma mater, the University of Georgia, to partner with the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Arizona to apply for and receive a $2.1 million National Cancer Institute grant.
His cancer journey began in November 2002, when he returned from a trip to Mexico and started having stomachaches. He thought it might be the food or a virus, but after a month with no improvement, he went to his doctor. A CT scan revealed shocking news for a healthy, active 42-year-old man: he had a growth in his pancreas. In about 80 percent of cases, pancreatic tumors are found only after they’ve spread to other parts of the body. Luckily, his tumor was operable, and whipple surgery was scheduled for the day after Christmas.
The five-hour surgery was followed by a series of painful and discouraging complications that sent him back to the hospital repeatedly for a month. He lost 35 pounds, his cheeks were sunken and his voice creaked. It was mid-February before he’d gained enough weight and strength to begin chemotherapy. For three months, he’d visit the hospital every other week for nearly eight hours at a time, hooked to an IV that injected a drug so powerful he could feel it burn as it entered his veins.
After a 30-day break, he went through yet another three months of chemotherapy followed by 29 days of radiation therapy with an oral chemotherapy drug to enhance the effect of the radiation. At the end of October, nearly a year after he was diagnosed, his doctor told him that he had done everything that he could do.
Like any cancer survivor, he feared the cancer would return and wanted to minimize that possibility. He made an appointment in November 2003 to see an internationally recognized scientist who heads up the pancreatic cancer research program at the non-profit Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Arizona. It was here that he met scientists and physicians attempting to treat complex diseases with the latest discoveries in genetics.
By examining tissue samples from his tumor, they found that the cells had a mutation that led them to have too much of a certain protein. He started a 6-month treatment regimen with “targeted” drugs that exclusively attacked cells with this mutation, completed in 2004.
In July, 2008, he had a recurrence of cancer in both lungs, confirmed as Stage 4 metastatic pancreatic cancer. He had a wedge resection of the largest tumor in the upper lobe of his left lung, and took advantage of a Phase I clinical trial testing a combination of two chemotherapy drugs. Luckily, the treatment worked, eliminating all of the remaining cancer nodules in his lung.
But, still, his cancer journey was not over. In May 2013, he had another recurrence in both lungs and embarked on the same regimen of chemotherapy for 6 months. Once again, it achieved its goal. That is, until October 2015, when the stubborn cancer recurred as a single tumor in his lower left lung lobe, which was removed via surgery.
Using a genome analysis on the cancer and his healthy cells, doctors are trying to understand why his DNA allows his body to respond so well to the chemotherapy.
If that can be replicated artificially, the hope is that it could lead to more effective treatment or even a cure.
“I thank my Lord God, wife Becky, my family, and friends for their support during this experience. I never felt that I was fighting this cancer alone. I continue to tell my story because others with pancreatic cancer can look at me and realize this could happen to them. As my doctor said, forget the statistics. Every individual is a statistic of one and has a fighting chance,” he said. “The concept of personalized medicine is revolutionizing the treatment of all cancers. I encourage my fellow patients to participate in clinical trials. Clinical trials have saved my life and they might save yours,“ he added.
Stand Up to Cancer Archived Interview: http://www.standup2cancer.org/pancreatic_cancer/archive
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