Reporting Dr. Maria Simbra
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Last November, Marcia Peters thought her celiac disease acting up.
“I had bloating, I had gas, I had bowel problems, didn’t have much of an appetite,” she said.
Then, she noticed extreme fatigue. After a series of tests, her doctors diagnosed her with ovarian cancer and treated her with surgery and chemotherapy.
“I was taking the carbotaxol, and it did its job,” she said.
But eight months later, she thought she had a stomach virus.
“When the CT scan results were in, there was something showing,” she said.
The disease had come back. In this situation, what treatment would be best for her?
The usual way doctors choose cancer drugs is based on what works on the majority of people. But, the majority isn’t everybody.
“If we treat 10 people, we know it’s going to work in six to eight of those people, we know it’s not going to work in two to four,” Dr. Thomas Krivak, a gynecological oncologist with the Allegheny Health Network, said. “Just as we’re unique individuals, everybody’s cancer is going to be a little bit different.”
A different approach is more personalized testing before treatment.
The test is done on the South Side. Live cancer cells from the patient are grown in petri dishes, and then different chemo drugs are tested on them.
Based on the results, doctors can pick the best combination of medicines to kill the cancer.
But, how do we know that cells in a petri dish will react the same way as cells in the body?
To answer that, the test was studied in 262 patients with recurrent ovarian cancer at multiple medical centers over seven years. By tailoring the chemo drugs to fit the cancer, patients lived an average of 14 months longer.
“For ovarian cancer, 14 months is a lot of time. It’s another couple Christmas holidays,” Dr. Krivak said. “With improvements in technology, we’re starting to get this data that is really helping people live longer.”
He said the $3,500 test is covered by insurance. And it can save tens of thousands of dollars in treatments that may not work.
“We can move to the paradigm that cancer is tested before we put these patients through these very challenging, difficult treatments,” Sean McDonald of Precision Therapeutics, the company that does the testing, said. “We really see us on the cutting edge of personalized medicine.”
It’s medicine that Marcia hopes will give her what she wants the most.
“I need a lot of more years to see my kids have kids and know what it means to be parents,” she said. “I don’t want two years, I want 20.”