FRONTLINE CANCER: Son’s cancer diagnosis brings home doctor's mission to find a cure

Editor’s Note: Last week, I received this beautiful letter from contributing columnist, Dr. Scott Lippman, director of the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. With his permission, I’m sharing it here with our valued readers. We invite you to join the La Jolla Light staff in supporting the efforts of Pedal the Cause, Sept. 18-20, to raise funds to support life-saving cancer research here in San Diego. For more information on how to participate or offer support, visit gopedal.org With four course options to choose from, there is something for everyone. All courses start and finish on the UCSD campus in La Jolla. The routes will be well-marked with course marshals and aid-stations to make the rides safe and enjoyable for everyone. Dr. Lippman’s regular cancer column will return in September.

Dear Family and Friends,

As many of you know, our oldest son, Kyle, was recently diagnosed with advanced stage melanoma. While not the most common form of skin cancer, melanoma is certainly the most dangerous. Treated early, melanoma is almost always curable. Treated late, after it has spread to other parts of the body, melanoma is much more intractable, causing roughly 10,000 deaths in the United States each year.

Kyle is undergoing treatment. He has chosen to confront his disease pragmatically, melding this medical fact into his regular life and bravely moving forward. As a college senior, he took finals, underwent surgeries and localized chemotherapy, wrote papers, graduated, and is now beginning immunotherapy treatments while simultaneously making plans for his future.

We continue to fight this together as a family. We are hopeful. Like so many others, this diagnosis has changed our lives, now and forever. It is a struggle, and when you see firsthand what this battle looks like for a loved one, you know that we are still tragically limited in the tools available to fight cancer. Cancer affects all of us. It is the No. 1 cause of death in San Diego. Nonetheless, as a doctor and as a parent, I’m confident that we can win this fight, but it will take all of us working together to change the way we treat and ultimately cure cancer.

With this goal in mind, my wife, Mary, younger son, Colin, and I are excited to join the thousands of other cancer-fighters who are riding Pedal the Cause this September. Pedal is San Diego’s annual cycling challenge with a mission to end cancer by funding the innovative research and care happening at our National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, in collaboration with two neighboring NCI-designated basic research cancer centers, Salk Institute Cancer Center and Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, as well as at Rady Children’s Hospital, where oncology physicians affiliated with Moores focus on pediatric cancer.

Pedal the Cause provides essential seed funding for the kind of innovative, high-risk/high-gain research that is crucial to advancing cancer treatments. Early support has often fostered development of some of the most important findings in cancer research. It has never been more critical. Without this funding, promising breakthrough ideas might go unsupported and unpursued.

Last year, Pedal raised $1 million in research grants, enough to fund three innovative pilot grants and one team science award:

1) The development and testing of fully synthetic nanobiosensors that detect key enzymes produced by cancer cells, giving physicians a new way to both diagnose the presence of the disease and determine whether a treatment is working. This work is being done at Moores and Sanford Burnham Prebys.

2) As more patients survive their cancer diagnosis and treatment, a new question arises: How does cancer treatment affect life after cancer treatment? A cross-disciplinary team at Moores and Salk is investigating this question, specifically looking at whether the rigors of treating breast cancer – the most common type of cancer to affect women – accelerate aging. If so, can intervention minimize or prevent the pathological effects of treatment?

3) Melanoma kills many patients by its rapid spread, so it’s crucial to determine quickly whether targeted immunotherapies designed to help a patient’s own immune system defeat the cancer itself are doing the job. Scientists at Moores and Sanford Burnham Prebys are creating the models to help make that determination. If they show promise with melanoma, the models could be applied to other cancers as well.

4) Pancreatic cancer is expected to become the second most common cause of cancer death by 2020. It is known that non-cancerous cells in pancreatic tumors lose the functions of two key proteins that would otherwise suppress cancer development. A team of scientists representing all three NCI cancer centers – Moores, Salk and Sanford Burnham Prebys – is developing tools to rapidly screen for drugs that might restore function of these proteins. The drugs could then be tested as new treatments.

We are now in the beginning phases of an unprecedented transformation in our understanding and treatment of cancer. It is happening right here in San Diego. Moores Cancer Center is leading that charge by transforming cancer prevention, detection, and care and making personalized medicine a reality. Now ranked 23rd among the top cancer centers in the country, our team of world-class doctors, researchers, nurses, and caregivers provide the most cutting-edge treatments, including the newest surgical, imaging, and radiation techniques and genome- and immune-based precision therapies.

We are proud to be on the front lines in the battle against cancer, but we need the support of our family, friends, and community to win this fight. Organizations like Pedal the Cause make it possible for all of us, as a community, to join together in taking a stand against the disease that will inevitably affect our lives in some way.

This year, the first day of riding for Pedal also marks my son Kyle’s 25th birthday. I hope we will celebrate many, many more. The road may not be easy, but we have never been closer to both understanding cancer and defeating it. But it will take all of our efforts and strength. Together, we will find the cure.

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