To call 83-year-old Jackie Raser a cancer survivor is an understatement.Diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer in 2008, she underwent more than a year of intensive drug therapy at a nearby hospital. When that failed to stop the tumor’s growth, doctors there told her she had just months to live.
“We were stunned,” her daughter Nancy Harris says. “But we decided to do fun things while she still could. We threw her a 79th birthday party, thinking it would be the last.”
Instead, the party was a new beginning for Raser.One of the guests told Harris about Dr. Ignatius Ou, a UC Irvine Health oncologist and researcher at the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center who was conducting clinical trials of a drug targeting gene mutations in non-small cell lung cancers.
When Ou learned that Raser had one of the rare mutations the drug crizotinib is designed to treat, he immediately enrolled her in a trial. The results exceeded all expectations.
“When my mother started crizotinib, she was struggling to breathe and had a terrible cough,” Harris says.
Just two weeks later, Raser’s cough had improvedand the tumor had shrunk to a degree that surprised even Ou. Within three months, it was dormant. “Although crizotinib doesn’t cure cancer, it can block genetic pathways that cause tumor cells to grow,” Ou explains.
Raser continues to take the drug and lives a full, active life despite her disease. “With chemotherapy, I was vomiting and so weak I couldn’t walk from one room to the other,” she says. “Now I get tired, but it’s nothing like the other drugs.”
Moreover, Raser’s experience is changing the way lung cancer is approached nationwide. A published report on her response to crizotinib helped lead the National Comprehensive Cancer Network to recommend using the drug with this unusual type of lung cancer.
Ou says that treatment of the disease has evolved dramatically in the last few years. Tumors now undergo molecular profiling, and therapies are tailored to each patient’s unique cancer. These targeted measures have a much higher success rate and tend to be less toxic than older regimens.
Harris, for one, is impressed. “Dr. Ou is incredibly dedicated, responsive and compassionate,” she says. “Thanks to him, it’s 2014 and my mom’s still here.”