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Going the Distance for Breakthrough Care

October 19, 2011

As an avid golfer, a successful bank president and father of three, Bruce Harris, of Fulton, Mo. wouldn’t let a possible bronchial infection slow him down. But when antibiotics didn’t help after several weeks, Harris’ doctor recommended a chest X-ray. The shocking results drove him to an oncologist in nearby Columbia.

At age 53, this go-for-the-gusto nonsmoker was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and given seven months to live.
That was four years ago.

“At first, I felt like I had been kicked in the gut, but then I realized I could either worry and waste the time I had left, or fight,” Bruce says. “I decided to make every day meaningful and make a positive difference for others. So I fought.”

Since the cancer had spread to both lungs and his lymph nodes, Bruce wasn’t a candidate for radiation or surgery. Instead, he endured chemotherapy treatments lasting three years. “Three times, I reached the point where there were no visible signs of cancer, but the cancer always came back,” Bruce says. “I finally ran out of chemotherapy options.”

Yet hope was at his fingertips. Harris went online and discovered a lung cancer clinical study at the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. His health was quickly deteriorating, and he was at a crossroads. He could either enter hospice or try an experimental treatment with a new drug, crizotinib, available through the clinical study.

After talking with Janakiraman Subramanian, MD, MPH, a medical oncologist at Siteman, Bruce decided that participating in the clinical study was worth a try.

“He told me he thought this drug could give me additional quality of life,” Bruce recalls. Bruce started the new treatment in October 2010 and nine months later is feeling great.

“If I hadn’t joined this clinical study, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it to Christmas,” Bruce says. “Instead, I’ve seen my seventh grandchild born, I’ve started running again and play golf. And my wife, Sue, and I took all our kids and grandkids to the beach this summer. That’s the quality of life most important to me.”

Through the clinical study, Harris visits Dr. Subramanian in St. Louis every three weeks.

“Making the hour-and-a-half drive is just part of our schedule,” Bruce says. “There’s no reason to go to New York or Texas for treatment when we have this world-class hospital right in St. Louis.”

Personalized Medicine Through Genetics

Crizotinib is being used in the study for patients with lung cancer who have a particular type of genetic fusion, where two formerly separate genes have joined together, giving rise to cancer. The drug has been designed to seek out and kill only the cancer cells in these patients.

“Cancer is different in everyone because of genetics. We know that we cannot continue with our former one-size-fits all approach to treating patients,” Dr. Subramanian explains. “About four percent of patients with lung cancer have this fusion gene, and the drug is highly effective in those patients. In the future, we hope to test more patients to see if they have similar genetic alterations, so we can tailor their treatments as well.”

While the ultimate goal is to cure cancer, Dr. Subramanian says researchers are also seeking ways to help people live with cancer and manage it like a chronic disease, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. “Until we can discover cures, we hope to find ways to keep cancer under control so patients like Bruce can go on with their lives.”

Research Support Makes a Positive Difference

Dr. Subramanian says, “Learning what drives cancer is the key to going after the disease. But we need more exploratory research into this unknown territory. That’s the kind of research The Foundation for Bar nes-Jewish Hospital’s Cancer Frontier Fund supports. And this support can snowball into even bigger studies with the National Institutes of Health.”

At the invitation of a friend, the Harrises attended The illumination 2011 Gala to support the Cancer Frontier Fund, an initiative of The Foundation to help researchers at Siteman accelerate breakthroughs in prevention, diagnosis and treatment that will change cancer care and cures around the world.

He also decided to contribute to the Cancer Frontier Fund. “If, at the end of the day, it makes a positive difference, then it’s worth it,” Bruce says.

To support the Cancer Frontier Fund (#6792) at The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital, give online now. If you have questions, please call David Sandler at (314) 362-3499 or email GivingBarnesJewish@bjc.org.

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