“I have always been in pretty good health. I never smoked. But as I sat in the exam room waiting for the doctor, I began reading the list of symptoms for lung cancer and knew the news wasn’t going to be good,” recalls Prince George resident Donna Sarver.
The news was not good. In December of 2011, Sarver was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Standard treatment options were available, but due to the advanced nature of her disease, there was no guarantee they would be effective.
“The doctor was very somber as he walked in the room. I remember him telling me that there were tumors in my lungs, my lymph nodes, my scapula, my spine, my liver. My mind went blank and I just stopped listening,” says Sarver.
Fortunately, Sarver’s physician, Sherman Baker, Jr., M.D., medical oncologist and member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program at Massey, was able to put a limited-use gene sequencing test to work. The test revealed that her cancer was caused by a rare fusion of two genes known as an ALK mutation--an occurrence that affects only about four percent of all non-small cell lung cancer patients. With this information at hand, Baker was able to recommend treatment with the targeted drug crizotinib, which targets the protein that causes the problematic genetic fusion.
Sarver could barely breathe when she first saw her oncologist, but after only a few treatments with crizotinib her cancer was in remission and she felt almost normal again. Though she eventually developed a resistance to crizotinib, the drug had shrunk her tumors to the point where standard chemotherapy could effectively control the remaining cancer.
“It really did seem like a miracle,” says Sarver. “In just a month, I literally went from feeling like I was at death’s door to feeling almost normal again. I’m so grateful we were able to discover my mutation and find the right drug to attack it.”
Most patients with stage IV lung cancer don’t survive more than six months after their diagnosis. Three years later, Sarver’s cancer is still being controlled through her current chemotherapy regimen. And while her cancer may become resistant to her current regimen, Baker still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
“Cancer is so difficult to treat because it can adapt its biological processes to resist therapies,” says Baker. “If Donna stops responding to her current therapy, we plan to further sequence her cancer’s DNA in order to determine whether she has a change in her ALK mutation. If so, there are additional targeted therapies that may be effective.”
For now, Donna is living life to the fullest and focusing her energy on her loved ones.
“I’m looking forward to my daughter’s high school graduation in the spring—a day I wasn’t sure I would live to see three years ago,” says Sarver. “We can’t control everything in life. I’ve come to realize that every day is truly a blessing, and I plan to use my energy to spread love and happiness.”