Ashleigh Evans was preparing to travel to an important political convention when she began experiencing bloating so severe she couldn’t button her pants. She rushed to her primary care physician, Heidi Stroessner-Johnson, M.D., and received an ultrasound just as a precaution. Dr. Stoessner-Johnson didn’t like what she saw and followed up with a CT scan to confirm a devastating diagnosis—advanced ovarian cancer.
I love the idea of my care being more personalized.
“I was lucky to have an incredible team of doctors across Sutter,” says Ashleigh. “I know the biggest problem with ovarian and lung cancers is that they often go undetected until the late stages, but I have survived nearly six years since receiving this bombshell. I have some shortness of breath and the chemotherapy was tough on my system, but that seems trivial as I am benefitting from something even more remarkable in the years since—precision medicine.”
Ashleigh has been under the care of gynecologic oncologist, surgeon, and researcher John Chan, M.D. Her initial treatment regimen of surgery and chemotherapy was rigorous and stressful. But the intervening years have brought several more tools to fight this dangerous cancer. Ashleigh has simple blood tests every three months to track an ovarian cancer marker to watch for early signs of cancerous cell growth. Her medical oncologist, Natalia Colocci, M.D., is in regular contact with Dr. Chan as they consult on Ashleigh’s care. Last year when Dr. Chan surgically removed a localized tumor recurrence, Ashleigh agreed that Dr. Chan could save the tumor and “bank” it for ongoing study.
“I love the idea of my care being more personalized. I have had two cancerous lymph nodes removed since my original treatment, and each time I feel like there are more options available to me for either studying my own cells by banking them, or watching biomarkers and trying new combinations of medications,” says Ashleigh.
Tailored Treatment Options for Patients
Approved drugs for treating cancer have become less toxic and more effective over the last five years. Dr. Chan is an investigator on numerous clinical trials and always keeps an eye out for innovative therapeutics that might impact patient care.
Researchers at Sutter Health’s California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute (CPMCRI) work alongside Dr. Chan to open clinical trials examining how immunotherapies and inhibitors impact cancer DNA and blood vessels. In collaboration with scientists at the Institute, CPMCRI researchers collect and bank tumors for further study and potential treatments using the Cancer Avatar Project mouse model. Sutter researchers are also involved in trials that explore options to help patients reduce stress through therapy, diet, and exercise and study the impact of such modifications on preventing cancer and recurrence.
“The changes in the treatment of gynecologic cancers are unprecedented, and I have seen responses to new treatments I could not have imagined 25 years ago when I started my career,” says Dr. Chan. “We are seeing lengthened survival and sometimes cures without impacting other quality of life issues as new, more precise treatments emerge to treat cancer like a chronic illness rather than a lethal disease.”
“With 23 hospitals and leading-edge research, our ability to partner with colleagues and integrate systems provides seamless care with better outcomes,” adds Dr. Chan. “Patients have choice and convenience, it makes them feel well cared for and allows us to collaborate quickly with colleagues and incorporate multiple treatment modalities while leveraging our electronic health record.”
Ashleigh has seen this increased collaboration first hand. It is not uncommon for Dr. Chan to pick up the phone and call Dr. Colocci during her visits. In one instance, they also reached out to a radiologist and determined surgery was the best choice. Ashleigh had a non-invasive procedure just two weeks later.
Research Advancing Innovative Patient Care
“This incredible team seems to push the edges of what is possible every time I visit; it is an incredibly positive experience,” says Ashleigh. “I am eager to learn more about the possibilities of precision medicine as well as innovations through the Cancer Avatar Project, and I am extremely grateful for donors who make this work possible: it is keeping me alive.”
“Philanthropy used to be the icing on top of what we did in research. Now, it is the foundation—the bricks and mortar—as we see decreased funding from the National Cancer Institute and other larger organizations,” says Dr. Chan.
Dr. Chan is deeply indebted to generous donors who make his research possible. More than the clinical trials, philanthropic gifts can help to bring more talented clinicians into our community to treat more and more patients close to home.
“My ability to work in a health network where I can partner with my colleagues and the community to bring innovation to our patients, means they don’t have to leave their neighborhood to go to an academic center for care,” adds Dr. Chan.
When Sutter affiliates collaborate with the pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies and technology companies, and when donors from the community support research, Sutter physicians are able to advance healthcare. Clinical trials have helped to extend the survival of some patients and transform some cancer patients to healthy survivors. Donor support of research gives our patients and their families expanded options for treatment.
Ashleigh remains active in politics and explores her creativity through acrylic painting. She calls herself a perennial learner, regularly enrolling in classes at the nearby College of San Mateo. She says she will continue to track the precision medicine work at Sutter. “With so much exciting research waiting to be discovered, nobody knows more than the people who have these diseases how important that is. We can’t afford to wait 10 years for the next big thing, and with precision medicine, I might not have to.”