I'm Dr. Laura Porter. For those of you haven’t gone through cancer, it might seem like an odd question. Others of you will understand – it’s something I find myself asking often.
Beating the Odds
Many of you already know my story. I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at age 43 during the second year of my pediatric residency. The prognosis didn’t look good. But after four years of surgery, chemotherapy, more surgery, recurrences, more chemotherapy – the whole nine yards – in May 2006, all my scans were clean.
When so many people and families never get to hear the words “NED” (No Evidence of Disease), why am I still here? Why me?
Why do some of us “beat the odds,” when so many others don’t make it, despite doctors’ best efforts? What is the secret? The answer is looking less like the mythical “cure-all” and now more like future research into personalized medicine, biomarkers and genetics.
See also: What Your Genes Say About Your Cancer
Cancer’s Miracle Responders
The exact scientific answer to my existential question, “Why am I still alive?” is still in the hands of researchers. What we do know is that “miracle responders” - like me - have a special relationship between our DNA, current treatment therapies and our cancer type. For us, these therapies work really, really well.
Scientists are now using this information to fight a smarter war on cancer and look more closely at the relationship between genetics and cancer.
Organizations like the Colon Cancer Alliance are investing in biomarkers, genetic indicators that can tell researchers why some people respond well to treatment and why others don’t. Biomarkers can also help us detect cancer earlier, paving the way for more effective and efficient treatment. Or better yet, no cancer at all.
Historically, these outliers have not been given much attention, but with recent advances in genetic testing, institutions are examining why treatment works so well for these individuals.
The Colon Cancer Alliance’s Blue Hope Research Award will begin in 2014, but researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York have already started looking into the genetics of those of us who beat the odds.
The National Cancer Institute recently launched their “super responders” initiative, matching patients with specific gene mutations to treatments that have proven successful in others with the same mutations, regardless of the location of the tumor.
Scientists are also looking at those who do not do well on treatment. Genentech’s InVite study offers 23andMe’s genetic analysis for free to qualifying participants who have been on Avastin. The goal of the study is to match an individual’s genetic information with their response to the therapy in order to find a correlation between DNA and treatment response.
If you have questions about these research initiatives or how they may affect you, call the Colon Cancer Alliance Helpline at (877) 422-2030.