Survivor Sunday: Cheers to Mike Leech

Guest Blog Post

A patient named Mike Leech came to our Foundation in 2016 needing support from our Patient Services program. A few weeks ago, he shared his story with guests at our 12th Annual Los Angeles Wine Dinner Auction & Celebration. We are honored to share his remarks here, and to help patients like him every day.

Cholangiocarcinoma is cancer of the extrahepatic bile ducts that drain from the liver. I have it.  And there’s no reason why I should still be here.  To understand my story, you need to know a little about cholangio.

The best thing is that it’s rare, 5-10 thousand cases a year.

It’s also aggressive.  Legendary NFL running back Walter Peyton was diagnosed in March 2004 and he died on November 1.  And that’s pretty typical.

Removing the cancer and replacing the bile ducts can extend average survival after diagnosis to three years.  Ten to fifteen percent of patients are candidates.  But even with the operation, no one with the cancer at my stage survived for five years in the largest study on the disease.

When I was diagnosed, two surgeons at top Philadelphia hospitals told me I wasn’t a candidate for the surgery. 

So the first treatment was chemotherapy.  Well, cholangio is also resistant to chemo.  It doesn’t do anything for most patients.  For some, it slows and even stops the growth for a time. 

Just before starting chemo, I called my good friend Lee Jay Berman.  Lee Jay’s been part of this dinner since it began.  I was looking for practical advice about getting ready for what lay ahead. His reaction was “Mike, I just don’t understand why we aren’t talking about a cure.” 

When I explained, he said, “Well, what’s the most advanced place for this cancer that’s close to you? We need to have them see you.”  That was Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York.  A second opinion on chemo might be helpful. “I think we can help,” he said.  “At the leading institutions where the T.J. Martell Foundation funds research, when the T.J. Martell Foundation calls the head of the hospital, they take the call.”

A few days later, thanks to Laura Heatherly, T.J. Martell Foundation’s CEO and Kate Fitzpatrick, Director of Communications and Patient Services, I was at Memorial Sloan Kettering.  Instead of an oncologist, I was face to face with the man who from my research is the leading surgeon in the world for this disease, William Jarnigan.  I wasn’t a candidate for the operation, he said, “but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that you can become a candidate.  If the chemotherapy works, you could become operable.”  That was a statistical long shot, but he was right.

After one round of chemo, the cancer stopped growing.  After two, it actually shrank.  He was able to do the operation.

Normally, this cancer comes back in 6 months to a year after the operation.  But it was over a year and a half later when mine did. It was in the spleen and in a hard to reach part of the liver. 

Nobody, and I mean nobody, ever has a second operation for bile duct cancer.  But Dr. Jarnigan took out the spleen and did what he could in the liver—followed by radiation.  That can completely destroy the remaining cancer in my liver.  We’ll know in six weeks.

Now, the cholangio is still in my blood stream.  It is going to get me.  But right now, I’m not on any treatment. And it’s been exactly four years since my diagnosis. 

Without Lee Jay and Laura and Kate, I wouldn’t be alive.  I don’t know whether research that the T.J. Martell Foundation funded played a role in my treatment.  I do I know that I’ve already had over three years more than I ever expected thanks to the T.J. Martell Foundation.  Time with my wife Kathy, who is here.  She’s been an incredible caregiver and support through four tough and scary years of treatments.  Time with my sons Jack and Neil, who were 6 and 10 but are now 10 and 14.  What a difference in our lives. I’m so grateful.

Cancer can happen to you or people you love and if it does, the T.J. Martell Foundation will be here to help.  Just as it’s helping save lives every day through research.  My story only happens if you stand up for all that the T.J. Martell Foundation does, which you’re about to get a chance to do. 

Then, hopefully, I’ll be back next year, having beaten all of the odds and gotten five years past diagnosis.

T.J. Martell Foundation Celebrates 25th Annual Cancer Research Summit

On Friday, January 17, 2020, the T.J. Martell Foundation gathered our funded research scientists from nine flagship hospitals across the country for our 25th Annual Cancer Research Summit. We are proud to support outstanding research at hospitals like Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Mount Sinai, Emory Winship Cancer Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center, City of Hope, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, UCSF Helen Diller Comprehensive Cancer Center, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, and Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Q&A With Lung Cancer Specialist Dr. Christine Lovly

Dr. Christine Lovly, Hematology and Oncology  by Susan Urmy

Dr. Christine Lovly, Hematology and Oncology
by Susan Urmy

We are proud of our long relationship with Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville and the many scientists conducting excellent cancer research there. Christine M. Lovly, MD, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Hematology-Oncology as well as Co-Leader, Translational Research and Interventional Oncology Program at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

In honor of Lung Cancer Awareness Month coming up in November, we are pleased to share more information about Dr. Lovly’s outstanding lung cancer research.

Tell us a little about your cancer research at Vanderbilt.

I have the incredible honor of being a physician-scientist; someone who actively bridges the worlds of scientific research in the laboratory with patient care in the clinic. My clinical focus is on the care of patients with lung cancer, and my research laboratory focuses broadly on developing new cancer therapies and understanding why some existing therapies fail to work (or stop working, a concept we call drug resistance). For example, in my lab, we study certain specific mutations (such as EGFR, ALK, and ROS1) found in non-small cell lung cancer, and we also have a growing program to study small cell lung cancer, which is a very aggressive form of lung cancer. We work from the ground up to understand the key genetic and molecular events contributing to the development and progression of lung cancer, utilizing a variety of experimental techniques, including genomic and proteomic studies, protein modeling, and high throughput drug screens in order to obtain deep mechanistic insights into these events.  We work with patient derived cell lines and patient tumor samples, to make the research studies most relevant and most translatable back to the clinic. Our goal is always to use our laboratory research studies to develop new treatment strategies for lung cancer patients as quickly as possible.

Do you have a personal connection to cancer?

Sadly, I think we all have a personal connection to cancer. Cancer touches every one of us – our family, our friends, our co-workers, the people we interact with every day. We witness their struggles, but we also celebrate them and help in every way possible as they go through treatment. I think it is incredibly inspiring to see how people rally to help and support cancer patients; no one walks this journey alone (and no one should ever have to!). It takes a village. I feel a deep personal connection to the patients I work with in the clinic. I am honored to be part of their support team. I also feel so blessed to have a great team taking care of my mom, who has two different cancers. Even our beloved pets sometimes get cancer, like my dog, who is such an important member of my family. No one escapes it. It is always personal. And we all need support networks to help along the way. “Encourage, lift and strengthen one another. For the positive energy spread to one will be felt by us all. For we are connected, one and all.” – Quote by Deborah Day

Who introduced you to the T.J. Martell Foundation?

I was first introduced to the T.J. Martell Foundation in 2009, when I started my oncology specialty training at Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, TN. The T.J. Martell Foundation is so ingrained into the daily activities and culture of Vanderbilt and of the city of Nashville at large! I was fortunate at a very early stage in my career to be supported by the T.J. Martell Foundation to follow my passion to become a cancer researcher, and I am so grateful to be surrounded by many of the T.J. Martell Foundation advisors, including Dr. Hal Moses and Dr. Jennifer Pietenpol.  The impact of the support and networking that the T.J. Martell Foundation has provided at an early stage in my career cannot be under-emphasized.

What would you tell someone new to the Foundation and interested in getting involved?

I would say – start with the T.J. Martell Foundation website: https://www.tjmartell.org/how-you-can-help/ . There are so many opportunities to get involved, and all help is greatly appreciated. It takes a village! I would add, while most people really want to help and actively support cancer research, few people have actually seen cancer research in action. Through the T.J. Martell Foundation, we have organized tours of my research laboratory and other research laboratories at Vanderbilt. I think it is very impactful to see the work in progress and meet the researchers who are passionately engaged in making advances to help cancer patients. I would welcome anyone interested to visit us!

Q&A with Breast Cancer Specialist Dr. Vandana Abramson

Vandana Download_2019-09-26_10-05-30We are proud of our long relationship with Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville and the many scientists conducting excellent cancer research there.

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, we are pleased to share more information about Dr. Vandana Abramson’s outstanding breast cancer research.

Tell us a little about your cancer research at Vanderbilt.

I am involved with clinical trials for breast cancer at Vanderbilt. My work involves finding novel therapies to target different subtypes of breast cancer. I work closely with Dr. Jennifer Pietenpol and other basic scientists to bring their scientific discoveries to the clinic and patients. Our hope is to better understand why cancers become resistant to certain drugs, how we can reverse that resistance and ultimately find better treatments for our patients.

Do you have a personal connection to cancer?

I have several close friends who have been diagnosed with cancer and have seen firsthand the toll it takes on families and communities. Those experiences motivate me to keep working to eradicate this disease.

Who introduced you to the T.J. Martell Foundation?

I was introduced to T.J. Martell through their incredible work and generosity at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. T.J. Martell Foundation’s mission to fund innovative research in the fight against cancer is important not just in providing resources to our researchers, but in providing inspiration to others in the community to join in the cause. T.J. Martell Foundation’s funding has led to incredible strides in the fight against cancer.

What would you tell someone who is new to the Foundation and interested in getting involved?

It’s rewarding and truly an honor to be involved in research supported by the T.J. Martell Foundation. This research is supported by so many people who do an exceptional job raising funds and staging events, ranging from dinner galas to golf outings. The Foundation offers people the opportunity to make a difference and having fun doing it.

 

Q&A with Dr. Mitchell Benson

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We are proud of our long relationship with Dr. Mitchell Benson, Herbert and Florence Irving Professor and Emeritus Chair of Urology at Columbia University and New York Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital.

In honor of Prostate Cancer Awareness Month in September, we are pleased to share more information about Dr. Benson’s outstanding prostate cancer research.

Tell us a little about your cancer research at Columbia.

Funding from the T.J. Martell Foundation has been instrumental in supporting new research directions for the studies of prostate and bladder cancer at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.  In the Shen laboratory, Martell support led to the generation of preliminary data leading to subsequent federal grant awards.  This is particularly important because it signals that the research is very significant (federal grants are very competitive) and importantly, the donors to the T.J. Martell Foundation are getting an excellent ROI (Return on investment).  In the past year, T.J. Martell Foundation funds have been crucial to supporting the molecular analysis of prostate epithelial heterogeneity by single-cell RNA sequencing. These studies have revealed a remarkable phenotypic and functional heterogeneity within both mouse and human prostate, showing that the luminal epithelial compartment is unexpectedly complex at the level of gene expression. This heterogeneity is further revealed at the functional level, as these distinct populations have different properties in organoid and renal grafting assays, suggesting that they may also differ in their ability to serve as cell types of origin for prostate cancer.  This is particularly important because the heterogeneity (variation) explains resistance to therapy.  The preliminary data from these studies was essential for the recent award of an R01 grant to Dr. Shen from the National Cancer Institute to support these studies going forward.

Funding from the T.J. Martell Foundation has been instrumental in supporting new research directions for the studies of prostate and bladder cancer in the Abate-Shen laboratory, particularly for generating new data that have led to subsequent federal grant awards.

In the past year, T.J. Martell Foundation funds have been crucial to supporting our discovery of a new genetically engineered mouse model (GEMM) of lethal prostate cancer that metastasizes to the bone with high penetrance (>45%). One of the main shortcomings of mouse models was our inability to have mouse prostate cancer mimic human disease, spreading to the bone.  Spreading to bone signals incurable lethal disease and having effective models that mimic the human disease is crucial to understanding resistance to treatment and for designing new treatments.  We have used lineage marking to the visualization of bone metastases in vivo and have performed histological and single-cell sequencing analyses confirm the authenticity of these bone metastases. We have performed whole exam sequencing of the bone metastases to show that they arise from a distinct sub-clone of the primary tumor, and we have done comprehensive RNA sequencing analyses which have defined distinct transcriptomic characteristics of bone metastases compared with metastases to other sites. Most notably, using cross-species analysis of the mouse bone metastasis signature with human prostate cancer bone metastasis, we have shown that the MYC oncogene is an essential driver of metastasis.   These novel findings will support a new federal grant to study bone metastasis in vivo, again ROI!

What prostate cancer research advances have you been involved with?

The team at Columbia University is a team.  We have numerous conferences where we exchange ideas and develop new research strategies.  As such I and everyone in the laboratories are involved in these advances.

Do you have a personal connection to cancer?

Thankfully I have no family connection to cancer but I have been a clinician specializing in the treatment and care of cancer patients throughout my entire career.  One cannot help developing a personal connection with cancer through my patients.  If ever I lose that, I will know that I have experienced “burnout” and know that it is time to retire.  I hope that never happens.  Not that I don’t want to retire someday, I hope I never lose my connection with my patients.  That is why I chose Urology as a specialty.  I wanted a long-term relationship and care for my patients is a caring and personal way.

What do you want men and their loved ones to know about prostate cancer detection and diagnosis?

I want men and their loved ones to know that prostate cancer is very curable when caught early and potentially lethal when not.  I cannot overemphasize the importance of prostate cancer screening with PSA testing.  Also, be aware that many prostate cancers do not need immediate treatment.  Although it is cancer under the microscope, its behavior is that of a benign tumor.  If diagnosed, don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion.  The T.J. Martell Foundation maintains an active referral system; another ROI.

Thank you to everyone who supported Brew for a Cure!

Brew bannerMany thanks to everyone who supported our 2019 Brew for a Cure initiative!

Craft breweries, brewpubs and top restaurants throughout Southern California joined together in the month of June to help support the T.J. Martell Foundation’s mission of funding innovative pediatric cancer research. In its second year, the T.J. Martell Foundation’s “Brew for a Cure” program united the foundation’s supporters from the medical, music, entertainment and local beer communities to raise critical funds for its cutting-edge Cancer Research Programs.

Brew for a Cure is an initiative started by the T.J. Martell Foundation to engage the local beer community — restaurants, brewpubs and beer enthusiasts — in our mission of funding cutting-edge Cancer Research Programs, including pediatric cancer research at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.  During the month of June, brewpubs and gastropubs across the southland made a donation in honor of Brew for a Cure and hosted a series of activities and gatherings to support the program.

06BE52CF-5267-4C13-963E-E839CDD1BDB2Participating establishments throughout the Southland have chosen to be a part of this important cause by making donations or hosting activities in honor of “Brew for a Cure.” The foundation’s friends at Gordon Biersch of Burbank hosted a Kickoff Party featuring musical performances by Rob Mayes (Actor/Nashville Recording Artist) and Dia Frampton (Actress/ Singer-Songwriter), while friends at Bluebird Brassiere in Sherman Oaks released “T.J.’s Triple” — a brew in honor of T.J. Martell, the foundation’s founders’ son who passed away from leukemia. Other establishments generously planned other activities including a Sunday Funday, Pub Crawl in Sherman Oaks hosted by Bluebird Brassiere, Boneyard Bistro, and The Local Peasant. “Thank you to all the establishments and patrons for your continued support; we could not have done this without you! You are a part of music’s promise for curing cancer,” shared Laura Heatherly, CEO, T.J. Martell Foundation.

PARTICIPATING ESTABLISHMENTS

Thank you to the participating establishments in Southern California listed below!

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Q&A With Dr. Allison Applebaum

62516028_10151282904409949_8656037170932350976_oTell us about your cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

I am a clinical psychologist by training and my program of research is broadly focused on the development of psychosocial services to assist caregivers – family members and friends – of patients with cancer. My studies currently range from an examination of the utility of a distress screening process to connect caregivers with tailored support services, to trials of psychotherapeutic interventions that target common caregiving-related concerns, such as anxiety, insomnia, and existential distress, to a communication training program that will help caregivers to communicate more effectively with their loved ones and the medical team. I am the Founding Director of the Caregivers Clinic at MSK, and my research is very much inspired by the experiences of those seeking care our clinic. I want to do what I can to assist caregivers at every stage of their journey, so there is a lot of work to be done!

Since your work centers around caregivers, what would you tell someone whose loved one was recently diagnosed?

For a caregiver whose loved one was just diagnosed with cancer, I would remind them of the following: (1) you cannot do this alone, it is imperative to have a support network both for your loved one with cancer and for you; (2) in order to take the best care of your loved one, you must take very good care of yourself, and this includes recognizing and acknowledging your own limits; and (3) as a caregiver, you are a key member of the treatment team, you are on the front lines, so push yourself to speak up in medical appointments, get your questions answered and make sure your voice is heard.

Who introduced you to the T.J. Martell Foundation?

I was first introduced to the T.J. Martell Foundation in 2014 by Dr. Jimmie Holland, who received the Foundations’ Pioneer Award in 2015. Dr. Holland founded the field of Psycho-Oncology and the Department of Psychiatry at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, so she was a true trailblazer in medicine, and in life. I had the great honor of receiving mentorship from Dr. Holland during my first years on faculty at MSK, and it was her encouragement to examine the larger impact of cancer on families that led to my interest in cancer caregiving research.

You recently spoke at our New York Honors Gala Kickoff about the connection between music and medicine. Can you share that here?

My work with the T.J. Martell Foundation is very special to me, as I come from a family of musicians. My father was a world-renowned composer, arranger and orchestrator and my mother, a brilliant concert pianist. Music filled my childhood home and from an early age, the transformative and healing power of music was clear to me.  Today, playing and listening to music is one of the ways that I ground and take care of myself, and I encourage my patients to do the same. Music is oftentimes the best medicine; even just a small dose can transport us to a different time and place and create within us a different emotional or physical feeling. So, my work with the T.J. Martell Foundation has in some ways brought things full circle for me and knowing that the spirit of the music industry is behind all of our science is incredibly powerful.

For details on the 44th Annual New York Honors Gala, please click here.

 

Q&A With Tracey Jordan, Women Of Influence Honoree

Tracey Jordan Social MediaWe will celebrate our 7th Annual Women of Influence Awards Luncheon on Friday, May 10th in New York City at The Plaza’s Grand Ballroom. This exciting event honors extraordinary women who have pushed the boundaries by achieving outstanding goals in business, work, family, home, and health while inspiring women around the globe to live their dreams. Every year, we love to chat with our honorees in the weeks leading up to our Women Of Influence event about their advice for other women and their connection to health, wellness and cancer.

Today we are proud to feature a Q&A with Tracey Jordan, who will be honored on May 10th at The Plaza. 

1) What does it mean to you to be chosen as a Woman of Influence by the T.J. Martell Foundation?

Being chosen as a Woman of Influence by the T.J. Martell Foundation is one of the highest honors I’ve ever received in my 35 years in the music industry. It’s a living testament to those who have taught, mentored, taken a chance and believed in me!

I have to mention Lee Solters & Sheldon Roskin, Berry Gordy, Clive Davis, Jheryl Busby, Ross Zapin and Scott Greenstein. And of course, the women, Katie Valk, Melanie Rogers, Iris Keitel, Martha Crowninshield and of course Mom!

2) What piece of advice would you give to young women today to inspire them to follow their dreams?

Never give up on yourself or your dreams.  Fight for what you believe in and, although it’s hard, try not to let them see you cry!  We’re creatures of emotion and sometimes it gets the better of us, but it’s looked at as a sign of weakness…that’s a hard one for me!  Stay close to the people who support you and try not to be affected by the negative ones.  Stay the course of your dreams and don’t let anyone take them from you.  Eventually dreams do come true!

3) What steps do you take to make health and wellness a priority in your life?

Being diligent about yearly check-ups as a responsibility on everybody’s part I can think of!  I try to watch what I eat, but that doesn’t always work…I will walk around the office and up and down the stairs to talk to someone in the office rather than call them on the phone or email them.

 

 

Q&A With Sandra Lee, Women of Influence Honoree and Cancer Survivor

Sandra Lee Social MediaWe will celebrate our 7th Annual Women of Influence Awards Luncheon on Friday, May 10th in New York City at The Plaza’s Grand Ballroom. This exciting event honors extraordinary women who have pushed the boundaries by achieving outstanding goals in business, work, family, home, and health while inspiring women around the globe to live their dreams. Every year, we love to chat with our honorees in the weeks leading up to our Women Of Influence event about their advice for other women and their connection to health, wellness and cancer.

Today we are proud to feature a Q&A with Sandra Lee, who will be honored on May 10th at The Plaza. 

1) What does it mean to you to be chosen as a Woman of Influence by the T.J. Martell Foundation?

I am just thrilled to be in the room and I am humbled by this honor. I believe we should all do our best to help one another, to share as much information as possible, and do both whatever and whenever is possible.

2) What piece of advice would you give to young women today to inspire them to follow their dreams?

I would say live your life being brave in every area and unintimidated- be kind yet firm and stand strong with your head held up no matter what.

Cement yourself in yourself.

Educate yourself and travel – everywhere and as often as possible. Do not listen to people who judge you – be comfortable in who you are, in the skin you were given and when you look in the mirror.

Allow yourself to dream big – as big as you can. Imagine what the best life is in this world, visualize it, and then allow yourself to have it. Go get it. Beware not to let others steal your dreams and therefore steal the possibility of your future.

Be smart, thoughtful and conscientious when the forks in the road arise—-follow each road in your mind’s eye and then make your decisions based on which road take to the best end.

3) What steps do you take to make health and wellness a priority in your life?

Schedule and Keep my doctors appointments.

Make as many heathy food choices as possible. No smoking, sleep, water, laughter, friends, family, work, play————wine.

4) If you are comfortable, please share one way in which your life has been affected by cancer.

I make every minute matter.