Bear Capron knows deeply the triumphs and losses imprinted on the stage of a well-lived life. The 70-year-old actor, director and educator has performed in theaters across Europe, and taught drama for 20 years in Palo Alto, CA where he lives with his husband of 34 years.
Bear’s voice carries limitless effervescence and optimism as he describes the life experience that spurred him to summon courage that no theatrical performance could have ever prepared him for: a diagnosis in July 2019 of stage 4 pancreatic cancer—one of the most aggressive types of cancer that typically comes with few options for treatment.
In February 2013, Bear had a kidney transplant after suffering from severe renal disease. Routine follow-up bloodwork in February 2018 revealed abnormal levels of liver enzymes. A follow-up CT scan showed stage 1A pancreatic cancer, with a tumor pushing Bear’s bile duct into the liver. An emergency Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy) was performed at Stanford to surgically remove the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine, the gallbladder and the bile duct. The procedure is the most common surgery to remove early-stage pancreatic tumors.
For Bear, the news could have left him feeling devastated: his father had succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2002, having lived only three months after his diagnosis. Genetic testing showed that Bear carries the BRCA2 gene mutation—one of the most common, known genetic mutations involved in heritable pancreatic cancer. Studies have shown that both BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation carriers have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
“I knew this information meant that my chance of survival was very slim,” says Bear. “But I have a deep faith and trust in life, and began facing this darkness with as much hope as I could muster.”
At first, six months of chemotherapy following the removal of the early stage pancreatic tumors appeared to have successfully cleared residual cancer cells from Bear’s blood and tissues. But a routine CT scan in July 2019 showed the cancer had spread (or, metastasized) to Bear’s lungs.
Seeking the familiarity and expertise of the medical community his family had relied on for decades, Bear transitioned his medical care to Sutter’s Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF). “Having grown up in Palo Alto, it felt like coming home to a place where doctors and researchers have created a village of care for the local community,” says Bear. And it was that continuum of care at PAMF, complimented by an established research program, that provided Bear the opportunity to enroll in the Targeted Agent and Profiling Utilization Registration (TAPUR ™) Study, a national, prospective, non-randomized clinical trial designed to evaluate the safety and efficacy of approved, targeted anticancer drugs.
The TAPUR Study, offered at a number of facilities within Sutter via the Sutter Cancer Research Consortium, is studying whether drugs that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for certain indications would work in treating other types of cancer based on a tumor’s specific genomic variation.
“The TAPUR Study involves participants with advanced cancers who are not responding to standard treatment and who have genomic alterations in their tumors that can be targeted with a TAPUR Study drug,” says Priya Chakravarthi, M.D., an oncologist at PAMF who told Bear about the study. “By offering this study across Sutter’s integrated network, we are providing our participants with novel therapies that they may otherwise not have access to.”
For participants like Bear, the study brings potential new hope for effective treatment after other lines of therapy have stopped working. To qualify for the study, participants undergo genomic testing to determine the specific mutation of their tumor. The study then matches the participants to a targeted therapy already approved for a different cancer.
Since December 2019, Bear has been receiving once-daily treatment with an oral medication, which has previously been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of a certain type of cancer. Under the TAPUR Study, the safety and effectiveness of the drug is being studied in other types of aggressive cancers outside of its approved use, including pancreatic cancer.
Blood tests every four weeks and CT scans every three months show that Bear is responding very well to the treatment, with normal levels of tumor markers, consistently shrinking lung nodules and no major side effects from the drug.
“We are thrilled to support participants who can benefit from access to targeted therapies made available through this unique precision medicine trial,” says Dr. Chakravarthi.
*ASCO, American Society of Clinical Oncology, and TAPUR are trademarks of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc., used with permission.
2. Adam Kowalewski, et al. Emerging strategies in BRCA-positive pancreatic cancer. J Cancer ResClin Oncol. 2018; 144(8): 1503–1507. Published online 2018 May 18. doi: 10.1007/s00432-018-2666-9.
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