Little-known approach to pancreatic cancer treatment offers hope for patients


(WGN) – There is no screening tool to detect pancreatic cancer before the disease spreads, and traditional therapies offer months, not years, of survival. But in rare cases, patients can live longer – with the help of their own immune system.

Craig Warner has spent much of his life in the air. But the former military pilot turned commercial is just as comfortable on the water.

“There are a lot of parallels between flying and sailing,” he said. “I sailed a bit in high school and was always intrigued by it… I ended up buying my own boat and have been racing ever since.”

Last summer, Warner and his team won their division in a race, but he said he shouldn’t have been on the boat.

“I woke up and had chest pains and I was like ‘Oh, is that the fat one?” He said.

Her heart worked well. But not his lungs and lymph nodes.

The cancer that started in Warner’s pancreas was already on the move when he was diagnosed at stage 4 in 2018.

Traditional chemotherapy has failed. But, luckily, the tumors exhibited a specific feature: a biomarker called MSI High which is only found in 1-2% of pancreatic cancer patients.

“We know that if you are high MSI, you have a great chance of responding to immune therapy,” said Dr. Dean Tsarwhas, oncologist at Northwestern Medicine. “But if you don’t check it, you don’t know.”

As researchers identify more and more biomarkers, patients may benefit from targeted therapies that help the body’s immune system destroy cancer cells.

” It is over there. The problem is, people aren’t often tested for it, ”Tsarwhas said. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t help everyone. But for those who do, it helps for a long time and does a great job.

In Warner’s case, his cancer responded well to a drug called Pembrolizumab. He received regular infusions for over two years.

“The CT scans from a year ago showed no cancer and I haven’t shown cancer since,” he said.

If he didn’t have the rare biomarker and the test to detect it, what would his prognosis have been?

“Usually less than a year,” Tsarwhas said. “Sometimes less than six months is the average survival for stage 4 pancreatic cancer.”

The treatment took the 69-year-old to a milestone. He walked his daughter down the aisle to her wedding last fall.

“I am living proof that this shouldn’t have happened,” Warner said. “They gave me less than a year when I was diagnosed.”

With his poor prognosis in the distance, Warner said he was sharing his story in the hopes it would inspire other cancer patients to undergo tumor biomarker testing.

“This immunotherapy is still new and maybe people don’t know about it. And I want them to know that. There is hope, ”Warner said.

Doctors said it was important to have any tumor tested for various biomarkers in case there was an immunotherapy drug that could work against the cancer.

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