Genetic sequencing brings new hope for North Vancouver woman

Personalized treatment aids in pancreatic cancer recovery

Susan Stewart credits her survival to a combination of excellent medical care, a positive outlook, and a lot of luck.

The 57-year-old North Vancouver resident was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in December of 2016.

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Today, her pancreatic cancer tumour is no longer visible on her CT scans and the metastatic tumour on her liver has shrunk considerably.

“It’s more than I ever expected; the prognosis originally wasn’t good, it’s not high with the Stage 4 pancreatic cancer,” said the Lonsdale area resident, who also thanked her strong support system. “To have had this extra 15 months with my family and friends and being able to do the things I enjoy just means the world to me.”

A month after Stewart was diagnosed, she enrolled in Enhanced Pancreatic Cancer Profiling for Individualized Care, a pan-Canadian pancreatic research project recently funded by the Terry Fox Research Institute. EPPIC looks at DNA and RNA sequenced from metastatic pancreatic cancer tumours to improve understanding as to why some individuals receive treatment better than others.

“In some cancers, we have a good understanding of unique aspects of the different tumours and is standardly tested for,” explained Dr. Daniel Renouf, Stewart’s oncologist. “For instance, in breast cancer, if someone develops breast cancer they’ll be tested for a number of different markers to tell us what drugs would work best for that person. In pancreatic cancer we don’t have any such knowledge.”

Dr. Renouf is leading the EPPIC project alongside Dr. David Schaeffer, a gastrointestinal pathologist and assistant professor in UBC’s department of pathology and laboratory medicine. The project started early in 2017 in Toronto and Vancouver, with two clinical trials, Compass and PanGen. Stewart is one of 10 initial participants in the study.

The $5-million funding from the Terry Fox Research Institute will support the sequencing of metastatic pancreatic tumours that EPPIC aims to do for 400 patients in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and B.C. and expand the program across Canada.

“The hope for the future is that if we can understand these deferential sensitivities or why certain tumours respond better to certain therapies we can then test people for these changes and the goal is for a more individualized and more personalized approach to treating pancreatic cancer,” Renouf said.

For Stewart and others with pancreatic cancer, EPPIC is providing renewed hope for a disease with just a nine per cent five-year survival rate.

“The success with my treatment is providing a lot of hope, hope that wasn’t out there a year ago,” she said. “The funding and the fact that the research is being done now is just an incredible feeling for me and so many others.”

Thanks to the success of Stewart’s treatments she’s been able to return to her previously active lifestyle and enjoy family activities such as skiing, hiking, snowshoeing and taking her two-year-old black Labrador retriever, Eddie, on walks.

“I’ve actually been able to maintain a pretty high level of activity, not quite what I was before certainly, but it’s increased quite dramatically, my energy level,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to sort of start getting back to where I was.”

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