Genome research gave life back to West Van cancer survivor

'There is hope out there'

Candy Woodworth knows she’s won the lottery.

In the past five years, she’s seen a daughter get married and celebrate the births of two grandchildren.

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But for a while, whether the West Vancouver grandmother would be around to mark those milestones was far from certain.

Six years ago, Woodworth was a busy 65-year-old, looking after her first grandchild while her daughters took care of the family business.

It was during a Pilates class when she was lying on her stomach that she first noticed something odd – an uncomfortable feeling in her lower abdomen. Woodworth didn’t think much of it, but when she felt it again at next week’s class, she made an appointment to see her doctor, who sent her for an ultrasound.

When she got back home, the phone was ringing before she even had her coat off, telling her to come to her doctor’s office right away.

There she got the news that she had ovarian cancer.

According to the BC Cancer Agency, over 300 women in B.C. will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year. It’s not nearly as common as breast cancer – women have about a one in 70 lifetime chance of getting ovarian cancer – but the prognosis can be far more serious.

“You just don’t feel anything,” said Woodworth. “That’s the difficult thing with ovarian cancer.”

Because there is no way to screen for ovarian cancer, and the disease is usually without symptoms until at an advanced stage, effective treatment is often a challenge.

“We have treatments that are very likely to cause the cancer to regress and improve but there’s a very high risk of recurrence,” said Dr. Anna Tinker, a medical oncologist at BC Cancer who is one of the leading experts in gynecological cancers and who worked on Woodworth’s case.

Woodworth knew she was facing a serious diagnosis. So she did some research and was referred to the expert team that specializes in gynecological cancer at Vancouver General Hospital, headed by Dr. Dianne Miller.

Woodworth had surgery to remove the tumour from her abdomen, which was confirmed as a high-grade Stage 3 aggressive cancer.

But her journey was only just beginning.

For the next four and a half months, Woodworth had 18 rounds of chemotherapy. “After my third week I literally crawled on my hands and knees into the chemo clinic,” she said. “I was literally throwing up as I was sitting in the chair.”

She credits her support team of her husband and three daughters for getting her through it. And the chemotherapy worked – at first.

But 18 months later, the cancer was back, with a tumour on her colon. She had another surgery.

Throughout the process, “My attitude was always ‘Let’s get in there. Let’s get the job done,’” she said.

cancer research test tubes
Research programs like the Personalized Onco-Genomics program at BC Cancer are continuing to advance care for patients with difficult-to-treat cancers. photo supplied BC Cancer

When the tumour returned again in the same place, six months later, Woodworth’s doctors signed her up for an experimental research program, the Personalized Onco-Genomics program, run by a team of doctors and researchers at the BC Cancer Agency.

The program – which is usually only open to patients after standard treatments have been tried – takes a novel approach to cancer, looking for genetic mutations in a patient’s tumour for clues to what’s causing the cancer to grow, and with that, a possible treatment.

In Woodworth’s case, the analysis showed her tumour had a signature similar to that seen when a BCRA gene mutation is present – more usually associated with some types of breast cancer, said Tinker.

In early 2017 Woodworth’s results were matched with an experimental drug, Olaprib Lynparza.

In Woodworth’s case, the drug worked. She’s now been on it for two and a half years with no side effects and no recurrence in her cancer.

The 12 capsules she takes every day – down from the number she started on – have literally saved her life.

“I’m so grateful for every day,” said Woodworth. “I don’t think the public realizes the scientists we have here in Vancouver.”

cancer research 2
Research programs like the Personalized Onco-Genomics program at BC Cancer are continuing to advance care for patients with difficult-to-treat cancers. photo supplied BC Cancer

Woodworth is among the more dramatic success stories to come out of the personalized genomic research project, falling into a small group of “super responder” patients.

Others include a Langley woman whose metastatic breast cancer was beaten back by a drug commonly used to treat diabetes, in addition to hormone treatment.

Another Metro Vancouver woman was saved when scientists discovered her advanced colon cancer had a protein that responded to blood pressure medication.

Since the program started in 2012, 1,136 patients, including 123 children, have been enrolled in the program.

Patients who take part need to understand the process is experimental, said Tinker. While helpful new information is gleaned in about 80 per cent of cases, the result is not always as dramatic as it was in Woodworth’s case and not all cancer patients are helped by the genome analysis.

In some patients, no helpful mutations are discovered that can be used as clues to treatment and in some cases, no drugs are a match.

Cancer patients start new treatments as a result of their genome results about 40 per cent of the time.

Ideally, patients who are matched with treatments can be enrolled in clinical trials that make expensive drugs available to them free of charge, said Tinker.

But that’s not the always the case.

Woodworth knows she’s lucky. “I knew what I was up against,” she said, but she remained stubbornly optimistic, describing herself as a “glass half full kind of person.”

These days, Woodworth – who recently celebrated her 70th birthday – takes delight in spending time with her grandkids.

“I can’t let a day go by without stopping by for a quick hug,” she said. “I don’t stay around and clean my house. I get out there.”

“I don’t take anything for granted. That’s the one thing you take away when you feel that mortality. You have to live every day the best that you can.”

She hopes stories like hers will lead to money for research that will benefit other cancer patients.

The research at the Personalized Onco-Genome program is funded by approximately $22.7 million from the BC Cancer Foundation, largely raised through philanthropic donations, as well as by research grants, particularly through the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

“Hopefully they’ll find more [information on how cancers behave], and more people will survive,” said Woodworth. “That’s what I want for everyone. There is hope out there.”

 

To find out how to donate to the research funded by the BC Cancer Foundation, including the Personalized Onco-Genomics program, click here.

To find out how to donate to the VGH/UBC Hospital Foundation, which benefits programs including the Ovcare research team examining gynecological cancers, click here

To view a CBC Nature of Things documentary on the Personalized Onco-Genomics program, which aired on the network in February 2017, click here

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