Brain tumor treatment needs new approaches. Here are 4 at City of Hope:

April 17, 2015 | by   

The need for improvements in treating malignant brain tumors has never been greater. Survival for many patients with these tumors are sometimes measured in just months.

One reason that therapeutic options are limited is that traditional surgery is deemed too risky for many brain tumors, especially for those in hard-to-reach areas or in parts of the brain that control vital functions. Further, traditional treatment approaches have yielded only minor advances in the past few decades.

That’s why Behnam Badie, M.D., chief of the Division of Neurosurgery, along with other researchers and physicians at City of Hope, are developing novel therapies for cancer of the brain. “Being a neurosurgeon is not enough,” Badie said recently in an interview with BBC. “It has to be through science and technology. And that’s one of the reasons I came to City of Hope.”

Here are four ways in which City of Hope is advancing brain tumor treatment.

1. Using stem cells to deliver drugs into tumors

Neural stem cells have the ability to deliver anti-cancer therapies directly to the site of a brain tumor, without damaging healthy tissue. The latest study of this approach – from Karen Aboody, M.D., professor in the Department of Neurosciences and Division of Neurosurgery, and Jana Portnow, M.D., associate director of the Brain Tumor Program – will help determine the maximum tolerated dose of neural stem cells that can be safely administered directly into the brain. The researchers are also studying the possibility of administering repeat doses of the neural stem cells. A phase I clinical trial of this approach is currently underway.

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Testicular cancer patient: ‘I didn’t feel like just a patient’

April 16, 2015 | by   

“Honestly, there’s nothing special about my story,” protested Daniel Samson, as he bounced Layla, his 3 1/2-year-old daughter, on his lap and put on a video for her to watch. “I just want to tell it for my own sake, and share it with other men who may be going through this chaos.” Samson spoke in a slow, easy, earnest manner, displaying a constant smile, looking very much like someone truly grateful to be where he is.

Daniel Samson, testicular cancer patient

Testicular cancer patient Daniel Samson,  shown here with daughter, Layla, says the staff at City of Hope are “never too busy to talk to you, answer a question or help you.”

Grateful, because at 41, Samson’s been through the “chaos” twice.

A commercial photographer from Long Beach, Samson first developed testicular cancer in his mid 20s. That’s typical. Most of the roughly 8,400 men diagnosed each year are between the ages of 15 and 34. Samson was treated at a local hospital, getting surgery and chemotherapy. For a while, he believed he was cured.

But a decade later, the cancer returned. “The chemo didn’t do the job,” he believes.

Although the overall survival rate for testicular cancer approaches 96 percent, recurrences can and do happen, often in other parts of the body. Chronic lower back pain and difficulty sleeping sent Samson back to his doctors. Tests revealed cancer cells in the lymph nodes, plus a large abdominal tumor.

This time, Samson and his oncologist chose City of Hope because of its unique and renowned expertise in surgery and treatment for recurrent testicular cancer.

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Testicular cancer doctor: Jonathan Yamzon says patients ‘inspire me’

April 15, 2015 | by   

As far back as he can remember, Jonathan Yamzon, M.D., wanted to be a doctor.

Prostate cancer expert Jonathan Yamzon

Testicular cancer expert Jonathan Yamzon says of his patients: “They inspire me. … It’s a privilege to usher and guide them on this journey.”

“I knew it from the get-go,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I always envisioned it as the ideal; the supreme thing one could do with one’s life.”

The youngest of six children, Yamzon was barely a toddler when his family moved to Los Angeles from the Philippines. He had plenty of hard-working role models. His mother and father were social workers. His siblings embodied the “aim high, don’t waste time” philosophy, pushing young Jonathan to seize every opportunity, starting on the first day of school.

He did, excelling at each step. Top grades at Bishop Amat High School. Honors society at UC San Diego, where he earned a bioengineering degree. Singled out for special scholarships at Keck School of Medicine of USC. A challenging residency at Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center.

In 2010, he arrived  at City of Hope.

He doesn’t argue when folks call him “driven.” Exercise is his relaxation. He tackles challenging mountain bike trails: the tougher, the better. He speaks in the calm, quiet, rapid-fire, sometimes hypertechnical, here-are-all-the-facts manner befitting a professional who’s an expert in his field and totally devoted to his work.

Then there’s the side of this proud father of two (“and one on the way!” he adds) that unmistakably marks Yamzon as one of City of Hope’s best. Listen to the way he talks about his patients: » Continue Reading

Testicular cancer program’s goal: Return patients to normal life

April 14, 2015 | by   

There’s never a “good” time for cancer to strike. With testicular cancer, the timing can seem particularly unfair. This disease targets young adults in the prime of life; otherwise healthy people unaccustomed to any serious illness, let alone cancer. And suddenly …

testicular cancer and fertility impact

The testicular cancer program at City of Hope is about more than tumor removal. It’s about getting young men back to their normal lives, with their fertility and health intact.

“I can only imagine what they must be thinking,” says Jonathan Yamzon, M.D., assistant clinical professor and surgeon in City of Hope’s Division of Urology and Urologic Oncology. Yamzon displays the genuine empathy that’s typical in every corner of City of Hope. He’s met and treated many testicular cancer patients, and he knows “how worried they must be, not only for themselves, but also for their young families, their small children.”

More than 8,400 men are diagnosed with testicular cancer each year. While rare, it is the most common cancer found in young men between the ages of 15 and 34. The good news is, if detected early, testicular cancer has an overall five-year survival rate of 96 percent. Treatment includes surgery to remove the testicle, and, if tests indicate remaining or spreading cancer cells, chemotherapy and radiation as needed. Even when the cancer has spread, the odds remain favorable.

When treating this younger population, the goal must be more than simply removing tumors. At City of Hope, the aim is to get the patient back to his normal life, preserving his fertility and longevity. » Continue Reading

Lifestyle and cancer: Questions answered, myths debunked

April 13, 2015 | by   

Sure, a healthy lifestyle can lower a person’s risk, but the impact of specific actions is harder to tease out. Diet, exercise, tobacco use, nutritional supplements, alcohol consumption … How important are each of these factors, individually? Does strict adherence to (or rejection of) one get you a pass on the others?

Hold off on the binge. Amid so much confusion about lifestyle and cancer, why not ask the experts at City of Hope? They can debunk misconceptions about cancer while sharing cancer facts that matter, such as the reality of risk factors, prevention measures and the research underway at City of Hope.

Join us on April 25 in Simi Valley, California, for Ask the Experts “Cancer Urban Legends: Lifestyle” and hear physicians explain the connection between lifestyle and cancer, specifically the underlying facts of how our choices impact our health. » Continue Reading

National Healthcare Decisions Day: Start with 5 simple questions

April 12, 2015 | by   
advance healthcare directive

Don’t make your health care team or loved ones guess what you want should you be unable to make a decision. On National Healthcare Decision Day, tell them — by making an advance health care directive.

Health care decisions are tough. They’re even tougher when you – or loved ones – have to make them without a plan or a conversation.

National Healthcare Decisions Day, on April 16,  is a nationwide initiative to demystify the health care decision-making process and encourage families to start talking. Ultimately, that talking should lead to an advance directive or agreement that will guide future plans and health care decisions should you be unable to make your wishes known.

It’s no coincidence that the annual observance lands the day after tax returns are due – it was inspired by Ben Franklin’s quote: “… in this world nothing can be said to be certain but death and taxes.” National Healthcare Decisions Day gives you a reason to broach the conversation without the angst of why.

So if you haven’t outlined your wishes, now’s the time to start thinking, start a conversation and start mapping out a plan. » Continue Reading

Minorities and cancer: One factor can make a difference – exercise

April 11, 2015 | by   
Minorities and cancer rates

The minorities and cancer statistics are grim, with African-American men and women having considerably higher death rates from the disease. City of Hope is working to erase those disparities. One way is by promoting exercise.

The statistics, direct from the American Cancer Society, are sobering:

Researchers have known for a long time that minority communities take a disproportionate hit when it comes to cancer. There are many explanations. Economics almost always plays a big role in early detection of cancer and in access to the most appropriate care. So do education levels and cultural differences. It may seem daunting, even impossible to address and correct such deeply-entrenched gaps. But experts do believe one critical factor can make a profound difference: preaching the gospel of prevention and supplying the tools to enable it.

We know that the best way to beat cancer is to stop it from occurring in the first place. But if prevention is indeed the first line of defense, it’s a tragically underused weapon in disadvantaged communities.

“When you’re unduly burdened with the necessities of daily life, when it’s a struggle just to get food on the table, you don’t have the time or energy to spend on prevention,” says Kimlin Tam Ashing, Ph.D., director of City of Hope’s Center for Community Alliance for Research & Education (CCARE).”

That’s why CCARE and Minority Cancer Awareness Week are so important. » Continue Reading

Second opinion saves thyroid cancer patient’s voice

April 10, 2015 | by   
Alex Camargo

Thyroid cancer patient Alex Camargo was told by a doctor elsewhere that he would need a total laryngectomy, which would have cost him the ability to speak. City of Hope surgeons, however, were able to save Camargo’s voice.

“Lucky” is not usually a term used to describe someone diagnosed with cancer.  But that’s how 34-year-old Alex Camargo’s doctor described him when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer — the disease is one of the most treatable cancers at all stages.

That doctor was ultimately proved right, but not for the reasons he and Camargo initially thought.

Five-year survival outcomes for Stage 1 and 2 thyroid cancer are nearly 100 percent. Stage 3 has a 93 percent survival rate and Stage 4 has a 51 percent survival rate. “I was told that if I had to be diagnosed with cancer, this was the best cancer I could get, so I wasn’t scared,” Camargo said.

Then the Rialto, California, resident went to a cancer specialist to begin his treatment and discovered that his case wasn’t as simple as he had believed.

The cancer was starting to invade his trachea and larynx (more commonly known as the windpipe and voice box) and move into his lungs. In order to treat the cancer, his doctor told him, Camargo would need to undergo a total laryngectomy, which would leave him with a permanent breathing tube and no voice.

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My lymphoma diagnosis: What I learned – Geoff Berman

April 9, 2015 | by   

Lymphoma patient Geoff Berman with his wife Autumn.

Geoff Berman, 61, starts his day with the motto: “The sun is up. I’m vertical. It’s a good day.”

Ever since he’s been in remission from lymphoma, Berman makes a special point of being grateful for each day, reminding himself that being alive is a gift. “I just enjoy living,” he said. “I give every ounce of positivity I can.”

This resolve followed Berman’s diagnosis for lymphoma in 2013, just days after purchasing a new home in Palm Desert, California, with his wife. They’d planned to live there peacefully and uneventfully with their two cats.

But what Berman first thought was a pulled groin turned out to be an abdominal mass the size of a grapefruit, and he was soon diagnosed with aggressive B cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Finally, after seven rounds of chemotherapy, Berman came to City of Hope for an autologous stem cell transplant.

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Jumonji may help explain how stem cells find cancer

April 8, 2015 | by   
stem cells

Neural stem cells home in on invasive brain tumor cells. Now researchers are beginning to understand how they do this.

Neural stem cells have a natural ability to seek out cancer cells in the brain. Recent research from the laboratories of Michael Barish, Ph.D., and Karen Aboody, M.D., may offer a new explanation for this attraction between stem cells and tumors.

Prior to joining City of Hope, Aboody, now a professor in the Department of Neurosciences and the Division of Neurosurgery, found that neural stem cells are able to home in on invasive brain tumors. Since then, she and her colleagues have harnessed this ability to target cancer cells in a clinical trial at City of Hope, delivering localized chemotherapy directly to the most lethal form of brain cancer, high-grade gliomas. However, the specific drivers behind the stem cells’ ability to find tumors remain elusive.

The latest study, led by Patrick Perrigue, a former graduate student mentored by Aboody and Barish, points to a protein called Jumonji, expressed in both normal and cancer cells, as a key factor.

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