Cancer Gets Personal

Early in the morning of Nov 21, I suffered the loss of my father. However prepared one might be for this eventuality, there is nothing that can really prepare you.

At 95 years of age, he had lived longer than many. I had cared for my father as a patient since 1974, when he was first diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer. I remember the day I received notification of the diagnosis. I felt a sense of deep sorrow that my father at 74 would soon die of high-grade locally advanced prostate carcinoma. As a member of the generation that forgot to have children, I was saddened that my father would not live to see grandchildren.

I remember traveling to Connecticut for his initial evaluation and then scouring the literature for the best possible options. Fortunately, despite the aggressiveness of the disease it had not metastasized.

I arranged for my father to travel to California where I then oversaw his care in collaboration with Dr. A.M. Nisar Syed in radiation oncology. There is a well-known dictum in medicine that only doctors and their families suffer unexpected complications. In my father’s case it certainly rang true. First, the radiation implants did not penetrate the tumor and needed to be removed and replaced. As a result of this double procedure, he then developed bleeding that required emergency hospitalization several days later.

Despite these hiccups, the combination of implant and external beam radiation provided excellent control. With a full recovery my father returned to his normal activities.

As so often happens in medicine a personal experience provides a focused interest. I delved into the prostate cancer literature and became increasingly interested in the biology of this disease. One area of particular interest was the role of hormonal therapy. When? How much? How long?

When my father’s PSA began to rise the second year, I had a unique opportunity to examine these questions at a very personal level. Would the early institution of androgen blockade induce the hormone refractory state? Was there a “trigger” value of the PSA that dictated the institution of the therapy? I remember discussing these questions with a prostate cancer expert and chairman of the ECOG committee, Dr. Basil Kasimis, whom I had had the pleasure of working with several years earlier. I agonized over starting hormonal therapy as my father’s PSA rose from 4 to 10, to 25, to 54, and up to 150. Despite these frightening PSA values, there was no evidence of metastatic disease on serial bone scans, which I performed religiously every six to 12 months.

Almost a decade passed but there was still no metastatic disease. And then my father developed severe coronary artery disease in his early 80s. Coronary artery bypass graft was the only option. To avoid the possibility of seeding the sternal wound, I bit the bullet and treated him with hormonal suppression – immediately driving the PSA to nearly 0.

With his coronary artery bypass surgery a success, he came off hormonal therapy and I let his PSA drift upward again.

As he had returned to Connecticut, his urologist became increasingly concerned by the rising PSA, and, without my knowledge, decided to rechallenge him with hormonal ablation. While I understood the motivation for this intervention, I didn’t agree and took him off all hormones for a prolonged period of time. Over the subsequent years, I would intervene occasionally to shepherd my father through pneumonia, a broken hip, a bleeding ulcer, and a variety of other maladies so common in patients who transition from their 80s to their 90s. On several occasions, we gave brief courses of hormonal ablation to suppress the PSA, when the steepness of the rise gave concern. Twenty-one years after his diagnosis my father died of natural causes, with no evidence of metastatic prostate cancer.

The experience was instructive on many levels. First, I realized how important it is to treat all patients as if they are a member of your own family. Second, it takes a lot of guts to step outside the normal guidelines and to do what you believe to be best. Third, I realize that in medical oncology it is the most “aggressive” physician who has the courage not to treat.

So often in this field doctors institute treatment, not because it is needed, nor because it will work, but because by doing so they have “done their job,” the rest is no longer their responsibility.

But “doing your job” as a physician, particularly in medical oncology may demand that you step outside of the NCCN guidelines, however uncomfortable it may make you, to do the right thing. Virtually every urologist or oncologist in America would have treated my father for his rising PSA 20 years ago. While I cannot say with certainty, I feel fairly confident that he lived the past 21 years in part because I didn’t treat him. Every patient needs an advocate. I feel a sense of personal satisfaction that I was there to be my father’s. He lived a long and productive life, I hope and believe that I helped him to do so.

Every experience, even traumatic ones, can have a silver lining. My father’s diagnosis lead me to develop a combined modality approach for locally advanced prostate cancer that has provided among the best biochemical relapse-free survival rates ever observed in this disease. Had I known then what I know today, I would have certainly treated my father with this approach.

Secondly, my interest in prostate cancer lead me to examine the lifestyle, nutritional, and micro-nutritional aspects of this disease – knowledge that I apply to this day. This lead to my analysis of an herbal remedy for prostate cancer that unfortunately uncovered the adulteration of an herbal mixture as we reported. (Herbal Composition PC-SPES for Management of Prostate Cancer: Identification of Active Principles: Journal of National Center Institute, Vol. 94, No. 17, September 4, 2002.) Despite our disappointment at the discovery, it lead me to reexamine the use of estrogenic substances as therapies in this disease, insights that have provided benefit to many of my patients ever since.

In retrospect, it may have been my father’s natural inquisitiveness (that he imparted to me) that leads to my pursuit of these lines of investigation. And for that I will always be grateful.

To read more about Alphonse Nagourney, click here.

About Dr. Robert A. Nagourney
Dr. Nagourney received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Boston University and his doctor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, where he was a University Scholar. After a residency in internal medicine at the University of California, Irvine, he went on to complete fellowship training in medical oncology at Georgetown University, as well as in hematology at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla. During his fellowship at Georgetown University, Dr. Nagourney confronted aggressive malignancies for which the standard therapies remained mostly ineffective. No matter what he did, all of his patients died. While he found this “standard of care” to be unacceptable, it inspired him to return to the laboratory where he eventually developed “personalized cancer therapy.” In 1986, Dr. Nagourney, along with colleague Larry Weisenthal, MD, PhD, received a Phase I grant from a federally funded program and launched Oncotech, Inc. They began conducting experiments to prove that human tumors resistant to chemotherapeutics could be re-sensitized by pre-incubation with calcium channel blockers, glutathione depletors and protein kinase C inhibitors. The original research was a success. Oncotech grew with financial backing from investors who ultimately changed the direction of the company’s research. The changes proved untenable to Dr. Nagourney and in 1991, he left the company he co-founded. He then returned to the laboratory, and developed the Ex-vivo Analysis - Programmed Cell Death ® (EVA-PCD) test to identify the treatments that would induce programmed cell death, or “apoptosis.” He soon took a position as Director of Experimental Therapeutics at the Cancer Institute of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. His primary research project during this time was chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He remained in this position until the basic research program funding was cut, at which time he founded Rational Therapeutics in 1995. It is here where the EVA-PCD test is used to identity the drug, combinations of drugs or targeted therapies that will kill a patient's tumor - thus providing patients with truly personalized cancer treatment plans. With the desire to change how cancer care is delivered, he became Medical Director of the Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Memorial in 2003. In 2008, he returned to Rational Therapeutics full time to rededicate his time and expertise to expand the research opportunities available through the laboratory. He is a frequently invited lecturer for numerous professional organizations and universities, and has served as a reviewer and on the editorial boards of several journals including Clinical Cancer Research, British Journal of Cancer, Gynecologic Oncology, Cancer Research and the Journal of Medicinal Food.

9 Responses to Cancer Gets Personal

  1. Rick Carroll says:

    Dear Dr. Nagourney:
    I am sad to learn of your dad’s death. You are right, no mater the age, we are never prepared for this. Clearly he was a fine man who by virtue of his tutelage and nurture raised a marvelously gifted and accomplished son who has helped countless many to live! I think I speak for many in saying thank you to him for giving us this gift.
    Fondly, Rick

  2. Elaine L. says:

    Dr. Nagourney, please accept my deepest condolences for you and your family.

    Elaine LaMonk

  3. linda says:

    Dr. Nagourney–
    I just read your dad’s life story— what an interesting man! I am so very sorry to hear of his passing.

    Linda Stacy

  4. Sally says:

    Dear Dr. Nagourney,

    Our heartfelt condolences on your Dad’s passing…our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family!

    Ben & Sally Coletti

  5. Stacey Siegal says:

    Dr. Nagourney-

    Please accept my condolences on the recent death of your father. It’s clear that he instilled a sense of optimism and profound determination in you .

    It’s clear that you, unlike too many people, regard others independently–no matter their ages. Having recently lost my own father (age 88), I tire of hearing “He had a good, long life.” It’s never long enough when a loved one leaves us.

    Best wishes to you and your family in your time of sorrow.

    Stacey Siegal

  6. Dr. Nagourney,

    Please be assured of our thoughts and prayers. May God Bless you and your family. Most Sincerely, Matt and MaryAnn Hassan

  7. Nydia I. Martinez says:

    I’ve lost both my parents now and understand how difficult it is to express how it feels…there’s like some basic connection to this world that now is gone, and one tries to find one’s “footing” again. It’s a process that makes us really understand the cycle of life. Just know we’re all connected with you and sustaining you through this time. May he rest in peace and my you find peace in his resting.

    Sincerely,
    Nydia Martinez

  8. Rich66 says:

    So sorry for your loss. Although one can logically say advanced age of a parent should make the loss less painful, the extended influence on our lives makes it harder to let go…especially if used to helping the person.

    “doing your job” as a physician, particularly in medical oncology may demand that you step outside of the NCCN guidelines, however uncomfortable it may make you”

    I imagine treatment of a beloved family member or close friend may sometimes be the turning point for physicians. I have heard a presenting physician declare he would never prescribe off label treatment due to the necessity (in his mind) of practicing “legally” as opposed to medically. I suspect he might reconsider if family were faced with limited options.

    Losing my father was difficult as the doctors caring for him in his later days were seemingly more comfortable with stepping away as opposed to stepping up o try other options (presenting pubmed literature, I was met with anger)
    It was my father who declined a “treatment” for my childhood limp that subsequently the profession abandoned. I have him to thank for my ability to walk and run better than many my age.
    Your Dad was lucky to have you in a position to truly shepherd him through the fog.

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