View a slideshow of people whose lives have been changed through research at Duke Cancer Institute.
First comes love
One morning in 2002, Sabrina Lewandowski awoke with a headache that wouldn’t let up. The then 30-year-old teacher eventually was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, the deadliest form of brain cancer.
Duke’s Peter Bronec, MD, performed surgery, and Lewandowski was referred to neuro-oncologist Henry Friedman, MD, deputy director of the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke, where she was immediately started on chemotherapy and radiation.
In the meantime, her boyfriend, Gregory, proposed -- he had purchased a ring while she was in surgery. “Later I begged him not to marry me,” she says, “because I couldn’t even promise him a year.”
But the team at Duke had a plan. “Dr. Friedman told me the plan, and he said that if it didn’t work, we had another plan,” she says. She battled neutropenia and lost her hair. But the cancer never returned.
“Rather than settle for the standard of care, we used a rotation of chemotherapeutic agents following surgery and radiotherapy,” says Friedman. “We believe she did well because we used multiple agents, which is not the norm in this field, but she also may have had a tumor with a unique predisposition to respond to therapy. I choose to believe that our foundation of hope -- which embraces more than the standard of care -- made the difference.”
Ten years on, Lewandowski remains cancer-free. In February 2012 she became the first patient seen in the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center’s new Duke Cancer Center clinic -- and a first-time mom, welcoming daughter Layla on February 9.
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Gayle Serls of Durham says her life is ordinary -- and that’s just fine with her. For a time, it was about as far from ordinary as a life can get.
In 1995, at 45 years old, Serls was diagnosed with a rare form of acute lymphocytic leukemia, which could not be treated with conventional chemotherapy. Her best hope was an autologous bone marrow transplant, for which she was referred to Johns Hopkins. The night before she was to leave, though, she learned that her cancer had returned, and the procedure could not be performed. “Now I had no hope,” she says.
But a new option was taking shape at Duke. Joanne Kurtzberg, MD, had pioneered the use of cord blood transplants to treat children with cancer in 1993 -- and in 1996, Serls became the first adult to receive the groundbreaking procedure at Duke. Today, Serls is one of the longest-surviving adult cord blood transplant patients in the world, and helps make the lifesaving procedure possible for others through her job at the Carolinas Cord Blood Bank at Duke.
Duke physician-scientists continue to pioneer advances in the field, through both the pediatric program and an adult program founded by Nelson Chao, MD, in 1996.
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The health club
When Marc Liles’s doctor recommended surgery for his locally advanced prostate cancer, he wanted a second opinion. “Not because I didn’t have faith in my doctor, but I wanted to do everything I possibly could,” he says.
At Duke, Liles met with what he calls “the dream team,” including surgeon Cary Robertson, MD, radiation oncologist W. Robert Lee, MD, and urologist Craig Donatucci, MD. “They spent a couple of hours with me and explained all my options,” says Liles.
In the end, Liles did choose radical prostatectomy. A year later, his PSA level is very low, and there is no cancer outside the prostate. In fact, he’s in his best health ever, thanks to his participation in a groundbreaking Duke study of exercise in prostate cancer survivors.
“This trial is examining, for the first time, the effects of exercise on erectile function and other cardiovascular risk factors in men undergoing a radical prostatectomy for localized prostate cancer,” says principal investigator Lee Jones, PhD, scientific director for the Duke Center for Cancer Survivorship.
Liles says the exercise was great for his overall health and well-being. And Jones believes other patients can reap big benefits, too. “My dream is that when a person walks in with a cancer diagnosis, they are told, ‘This is your therapy, and by the way, here is your referral to an exercise specialist,’” he says.