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Cancer patient gains a new outlook on life

first_imgSugioka, 30, of Burbank was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most deadly form of brain cancer. UCLA doctors knew that even with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, most patients with glioblastoma live only about 12 to 18 months. Given those odds, Sugioka said she had no choice but to try all she could to stay alive. “If you know you have terminal cancer, you should try anything you can,” she said. She first underwent a delicate procedure to remove the tumor. The surgery involved keeping Sugioka awake so surgeons could speak with her to make sure they were not removing the part of her brain that controls language skills. She then enrolled for the first phase of a clinical trial at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center that involves using the patient’s tumor tissue to create an individualized vaccine. The vaccine is then injected, much like a flu shot. The tumor had grown to the size of a tennis ball, pushing deeper into Jennifer Sugioka’s brain and causing blinding headaches. She had trouble speaking, standing and studying for her law degree. But in a curious way, that same tumor that now sits in a University of California, Los Angeles, lab gave Sugioka the ability to see: the family who loves her, the friends who care for her and the UCLA neurosurgeon who gave her more time, thanks to a vaccine developed with Sugioka’s cells from her own tumor. “I see more clearly now,” she said. “I had wanted to become a lawyer to make lots of money. Instead, I learned that family and friends are more important, that time with them is everything.” Sugioka was one of the first 25 to be involved with that trial. And that was seven years ago. “Of all the patients that have been on the two trials, the majority have lived over two years,” said Dr. Linda Liau, the UCLA neurosurgeon who performed surgery on Sugioka. “There are now nine patients out of 18 that have lived four years from when they received the vaccine. Statistically, these patients are doing much better than without the vaccine.” Yet much is still unknown about the vaccine’s effectiveness, and whether it’s the treatment or the patient’s own physiology that is behind extending his or her life span. For that reason, Liau is hoping to recruit 150 glioblastoma patients to take part in the second phase of the study at 15 cancer centers nationwide. “I’m hoping that we’ll finally be able to answer if what’s happening is anecdotal, or if it’s really the vaccine,” she said. “Right now we can’t.” Brain cancer is among the rarest of the cancers, affecting about 20,000 Americans each year, Liau said. Researchers at UCLA began looking into a vaccine in 1998. Though there are similar studies being conducted at other universities, Liau said, individualized vaccines are often expensive to make, and less likely to be produced on a mass scale. That’s why studies are few and far between, she said. West Hollywood resident Kevin Carlberg, a 30-year-old musician who was diagnosed with the same brain cancer five years ago while on tour with the Blues Traveler and the Dave Matthews Band, agreed with Sugioka’s sentiment. After Liau explained the procedure to him, Carlberg said he was convinced to take part in the study. “It was like a why not?” he said. “It’s not going to hurt me. No pun intended, but it was like a no-brainer. “Dr. Liau saved my life. Her vaccine is another part of saving my life. The more people that know about it the better.” Because Sugioka has survived for seven years, Liau said she and other physicians have been able to learn more about the treatments. They test her blood frequently to see how her immune system is holding up. Though she still experiences fatigue and other complications and must take at least a dozen different medications a day to stabilize her hormones, Sugioka said she is proud that her survival is allowing researchers to learn more about brain cancer and the vaccine. “She has a good outlook on life and that really helps her,” said Mary Iwaki, Sugioka’s grandmother. A Burbank native, Sugioka graduated from UCLA with degrees in anthropology and business. She was a first-year law student when the headaches began. She almost fell from a flight of stairs at school because of the pain. Even after surgery, she studied for her finals from her hospital bed, she said, because she wasn’t ready to accept that her life path had changed. Her father, Gregory Sugioka, said it was difficult watching his daughter struggle with the illness. There were the physical pains and fatigue of chemotherapy and radiation, of course, but also the realities of her condition: her inability to go to work when all her friends have moved on to careers. And it was difficult for him to accept that he might lose her. “The hardest thing for me was that my oldest daughter was leaving me so soon,” he said of those early days. But Sugioka said she has accepted her life course. She has embraced Buddhism, visits with her grandparents more often, and says she has become closer with her friends, who invite her on trips, and with her younger sister Tricia, who helps care for her on days when she feels ill. All this because she was given more time, she said. “I live for the present, for day to day,” she said. “I have had my suffering, but it’s helped me in other ways.” [email protected] (818) 713-3664160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

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