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The Catalyst

Lung cancer patient urges politicians to fund research

By Ashley Barker
Public Relations

Nearly six years ago, John Sanders was diagnosed with stage-3B lung cancer. After 12 weeks of chemotherapy, he went into remission. But within a year and a half, he was diagnosed with lung cancer again. This time it was stage 4, and it had spread.

The administrator of the MUSC Children’s Hospital, who has been a life-long non-smoker, is approaching a scary milestone.

Children’s Hospital administrator John Sanders stressed the importance of clinical trials, new medications and federal funding during a June 21 press conference.
Children’s Hospital administrator John Sanders stressed the importance of clinical trials, new medications and federal funding during a June 21 press conference.

Statistics say that about 90 percent of stage-4 lung cancer patients don’t make it past the five-year mark. Sanders is planning to join the 10 percent who do. He hopes that continued research for a cure will help him survive much longer.

Sanders, who had two lobes of his right lung removed, spoke to legislative aides and the media during a press conference on June 21 at Hollings Cancer Center. During his speech, he urged politicians to provide funding for researchers to develop a cure for cancer.

“My prognosis is bad. This disease is going to kill me unless something else gets me first. It’s not a fun thing to think about,” he told the crowd.

New medications and a successful clinical trial that he participated in for nine months have enabled Sanders to keep living a relatively normal life. Even though he has chemotherapy infusion every three weeks, something he has to psych himself up for, he rarely misses work. He also spends each evening after infusion on a bike, peddling at least 15 miles around the Mount Pleasant area.

“I feel kind of crappy after chemo. It’s almost like a challenge to ride the bicycle,” he said. “I’m just trying to prove something. Cycling has been something that I actually picked up after my surgery. I absolutely love it. For some reason, I can do that. I can’t run. I can cycle because I can regulate the speed. As long as I don’t have to go up a hill, I’m pretty good.”

Each time he returns home, his wife of 27 years asks how the ride went.

“My feeling is if I finished I had a good ride,” he said. “So I’ll say, ‘I got back, so it was good.’”

There have been times along this road that Sanders has struggled when thinking about the future. His career goals, even retirement plans, are very different now. He and his wife sold their home and downsized recently because of the reality that she will probably live longer than he will. He has also made peace with the fact that he will most likely not meet any of his grandchildren.

“Those kinds of things get to you. But it’s a part of my life now. I just do it,” Sanders said. “There are people who sit around and it just takes over their lives, and it can be miserable. My feeling is that I want to live. As long as I’m able to, I’m going to do as many things as I can.”

Christopher Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, also spoke at the press conference along with Hollings Cancer Center director Andrew S. Kraft, M.D.

John Sanders, from left, Children’s Hospital administrator and lung cancer survivor; Dr. Chanita Highes-Halbert, cancer researcher; Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network; Nancy Cheney, ACS CAN South Carolina; and Dr. Andrew Kraft, Hollings Cancer Center director, urge Congress to make research funding a priority.

“This year, 580,000 Americans are going to die of cancer. That’s more than the number of Americans who died in both World War I and World War II, multi-year wars and the biggest wars we ever had,” Hansen said. “By 2020, that number is projected to double. This is a national priority.”

There are 14 million cancer survivors currently in this country, according to Hansen, and survival rates of cancer have improved by 20 percent since 1991. Research funding to find a cure for the disease, however, has been cut by more than 15 percent at Hollings Cancer Center.

“Cancer is a curable disease. Cancer is also preventable. It’s diagnosable, and we believe it’s curable,” Kraft said. “The question is: how do we get to the cure? We all want to see the cure. How do we make it happen? The answer is research.”

Without the research, the next class of new scientists will be limited and developments will be less common.

“If we do not support basic research, there won’t be any new therapies,” Kraft said. “Our young people know this and see that, and they say, ‘I’m not going to go into science. It’s a dead end.’ We’re not only losing our ability to make a difference, but we’re losing the next generation, which of course will become our greatest generation.”

Sanders said that if he had been diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer 10 years ago, he probably would not have survived five years or be nearly as functional.

“Because of the clinical trials that I was on and because of the drugs that are developed through research, I’m able to work and be productive now. Not only have they been able to come up with drugs to extend people’s lives through research, but they can also manage the side effects,” Sanders aid. “Ten to 15 years ago, the side effects were not as controlled as well as they are now. It was an absolutely miserable ordeal for patients. The bottom line is, if those dollars weren’t funded and better drugs were not made, I wouldn’t be here.”

Many of the children who are walking out of 7B, the Children’s Hospital oncology unit, would not be going on to live their lives either. Sanders finds inspiration from the patients whose care he is responsible for.

“I will say that when I was going through some of the rougher chemotherapies, it was inspiring for me to go up through 7B,” he said. “Kids are so resilient. They are a lot tougher than adults. I could just go through that unit or see them playing in the atrium, and it was very inspiring. It almost makes you feel guilty. To see these kids and know what they’re going through … they just smile and play and keep moving. It’s very inspiring.”

While wrapping up his speech, Sanders paused and asked each person to think of someone who has impacted his or her life and who died from cancer. He asked, “What could those people have done if they had been allowed to live?”

“I will not lose my fight with cancer. I hate that term. I’ve already won,” Sanders said. “It’s an incredibly lonely disease and something people shouldn’t have to go through. They can take this disease out. There is no reason for people to have to go through this. We need your help. We can stop this disease.”

To learn about donating to HCC, visit http://hcc.musc.edu/giving/faq.htm. Go to http://www.acscan.org/ to read more about the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. To voice your concerns about research funding, contact your local representatives.

July 2, 2013
 
 
 

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