Immunotherapy Drug Helps Patient Overcome Advanced Pancreatic Cancer

Laura Dixon and her father Warren Stubblefield horseback riding in Arizona in December 2016

Cancer has been an undeniable presence in Laura Dixon’s personal life for 20 years. Her first cancer diagnosis came 1996 at age 28: colon cancer. 

Seventeen later, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and underwent surgery. A year after that when she went in to have a hysterectomy to reduce her risk for ovarian cancer, doctors discovered she had ovarian and endometrial cancer as well. Somewhere along the way she learned she had Lynch syndrome, a genetic condition passed down through families that dramatically increases a person’s risk for several cancers, including colon and endometrial.

In the fall of 2014, Laura began treatment for ovarian cancer that was cut short by a reaction to the medication. A routine scan in May 2015 showed her pancreatic cancer had recurred and spread to her liver.

Doctors told her the future looked dim. Treatment options were limited, highly toxic and likely to only extend her life by a few months.

“I was used to hearing I have 90 days to live  … I’ve been hearing it since 1996,” she recalls with a wry chuckle. “But this time felt different. I didn’t want to be miserable if it only meant extending my life for a month. So I decided I would discontinue treatment and take my chances.”

But Laura’s father – who has overcome several cancer diagnoses himself – wasn’t ready to stop. He began calling every doctor he could to find an alternative treatment path for his daughter.

This led to Laura enrolling in an immunotherapy clinical trial at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James). The trial tested an intravenous drug called pembrolizumab (marketed at Keytruda).

The drug has been shown to be highly effective in patients with so called “microsatellite instability.” Mutations in mismatch repair genes that can cause microsatellite instability disable a cell’s ability to repair small errors in its DNA that occur during cell division. Loss of this repair mechanism helps lead to unchecked cellular growth that is the hallmark of cancer.

“For patients with tumors that have microsatellite instability, checkpoint inhibitors such as pembrolizumab have shown impressive response rates and improvements in overall survival thus far,” says Kristen Ciombor, MD, a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at the OSUCCC – James. “What is especially promising is that tumor responses are often very durable and in some cases can be sustained even after discontinuation of the immunotherapy.”

Laura completed 17 treatments between July 2015 and April 2016. A recent scan in February 2017 confirmed that her liver tumor remains completely gone.

“When I was diagnosed in the mid 1990s, no one ever mentioned the idea of inherited cancer risk, so genetic testing wasn’t even an option that was discussed. The medical community knows so much more about genetic risk factors now that I have hope for others to mitigate their cancer risk through genetic testing,” adds Laura.

Today, Laura exercises for 90 minutes every day before going to her full-time job at a Columbus area insurance company.  She also volunteers at a local food bank.   And in April, she is headed to Arizona to go horseback riding with her 80-year-old father.

“Someone once told me when I first got sick that if I could keep my sense of humor, I’d be OK and I feel like that is true. I wasn’t supposed to see 30 – now I am almost 50. My life has been tragically funny in some ways. But I am alive and I want to push myself to do things outside my comfort zone because I can do them.”

To learn more about the gastrointestinal cancer team at the OSUCCC – James, visit cancer.osu.edu. To make an appointment or find a clinical trial, call 1-800-293-5066.

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