Read the latest news and research breakthroughs happening at the BC Cancer Agency
“I speak about cancer. I ride my bike. I do these things because I want to change the story. I want a different ending.”
In 2008, Patrick Sullivan lost his young son Finn to an extremely rare form of cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma. A few months later, he was approached by two close friends: “They told me about this fundraising bike ride to Seattle, the Ride to Conquer Cancer. They wanted to put a team in it – and do it in honour of Finn. That was the start of Team Finn.”
Every member of Team Finn is inspired by a little boy who lived every moment of his short life to the fullest. Their distinctive pink jerseys read “Run. Jump. Bounce. Dance. Sing. Love. Smile. Ride,” words that celebrate Finn’s approach to every day.
Finn showed how to live life with courage and joy, and his example has helped Team Finn achieve extraordinary success in raising funds for the BC Cancer Foundation. In just three years, they have raised over $1 million to support cancer research. As Finn’s father says, “Doctors couldn’t change Finn’s story. ‘Incurable’ was his ending. If I could change that for somebody else, then every moment of time is worth it.”
Just over a year ago, Jackie Ellis had a week that changed her life. The athletic Vancouver resident had been troubled by shortness of breath, tightness in her chest and a racing heartbeat for several months. Finally, on Thursday, July 29, 2010, she was given a diagnosis: lymphoma. Within the next four days, she’d met several specialists, had two biopsies and a CT scan. By Tuesday, she had started her first round of chemotherapy: “I still can’t get over how quickly I was treated and how well I was cared for.”
While getting her chemo, Jackie recalls, ”I could see the BC Cancer Agency Research Centre across the street. I would pray that some brilliant scientist would make a discovery that might help me.” And they did.
Researchers in the Centre for Lymphoid Cancer – a team led by Dr. Randy Gascoyne and Dr. Christian Steidl – found a critical genetic mutation in the same type of lymphoma Jackie had. This will speed development of new treatments, such as targeted chemotherapy for individual patients.
Jackie celebrates her good health by returning to the things she loves, like riding her bike on the Stanley Park Seawall and entertaining her many friends. And she remains impressed by the close collaboration between BC Cancer Agency researchers and clinicians as supported by the BC Cancer Foundation: ”It’s inspiring.”
“We believe you only need three things in life: a companion, enough money, and friends. Everything else you should use to help others.”
Jimmy and Doris Ho moved to Vancouver from Hong Kong in 1996 to retire and enjoy the relaxed West Coast lifestyle. But in October of 1997, they knew something was wrong.
“Jimmy had a lump in his neck,” Doris recalls. “At first, we thought it would go away. But we were dancing at a family party and Jimmy suddenly had a terrible headache. His eye was even bulging a bit.”
Jimmy adds, “I was eventually diagnosed with early stage lymphoma.” Following chemotherapy and medication, Jimmy was given a clean bill of health.
“We were just so grateful, we had to do something to give back,” Jimmy says. “We know that research takes money. So, on top of our regular contributions, we decided to include a gift to the BC Cancer Foundation in our will. It was so easy — we just went to our lawyer’s office and made it happen.”
As Jimmy and Doris approach their 50th wedding anniversary, the couple are back to enjoying their retirement — together.
As with so many breast cancer stories, Laura Startup’s journey began when she felt a lump. When a biopsy confirmed that she had cancer, her first thoughts were of her family: “I wasn’t sure how to tell my husband. His mother and sister both died from breast cancer. I’m not scared of dying. I’m scared of leaving my children without a mother. “
Even after four years, her memory of the treatment is still fresh: “I had a mastectomy, then chemotherapy, and then radiation every day for six weeks.”
Yet despite the difficulty of her treatment, she remains deeply grateful: “I know I’m lucky to live in BC. The care I received is really outstanding. Yet I don’t want my daughter – or any woman – to experience what I went through. I benefited from research done in the past, and I know the only way to continue improving treatment and care for cancer patients is to support the kind of research funded by the BC Cancer Foundation.”
As a police officer since his early twenties, Mark Applejohn has faced everything from undercover narcotics work to a brick to his forehead during the Stanley Cup riot. So three years ago when he was told that he had metastasized cancer of the neck, his own well-being wasn’t his biggest concern. “I don’t believe in worrying. Worrying doesn’t make things better. I think you have to deal with whatever you face. But the thought of telling my wife or my two sons – that was a very tough day for me.”
Even through his lengthy radiation treatment at the BC Cancer Agency Fraser Valley Centre in Surrey, Mark focused on keeping his family’s spirits up. He gives a lot of credit to his care team: “I knew I was in the right hands. Everyone – from the radiation technicians to the oncologists – impressed me. They really cared. I wasn’t just a number.”
Now back at work for over a year, Mark remains grateful. “I know I got a second chance. I’ll do anything I can to support the research of a world-class organization like the BC Cancer Agency through the BC Cancer Foundation. I want everyone to have better odds.”
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Darwinian evolution in the deadliest of breast cancers
VANCOUVER, B.C. - BC Cancer Agency scientists have decoded the genetic make-up of triple negative breast cancer, which could lead to more effective treatment.
The study, published online today in the international journal Nature, reveals that this form of cancer is not one distinct single entity, but an extremely complex and evolved tumour with an unprecedented range of mutations.
Operating with the complexity of a mini ecosystem, triple negative breast cancers’ evolution before diagnosis may explain its ability to evade current therapies, earning it the distinction as the deadliest form of breast cancer.
BC Cancer Agency researchers, working with colleagues at the University of British Columbia, Cross Cancer Institute of Alberta and Cancer Research UK/University of Cambridge, unmasked this evolving cellular “ecosystem” and can now estimate how the genetic mutations evolved prior to diagnosis.
Named for what it isn’t, triple negative breast cancer is currently defined by three missing cancer-causing proteins (the estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor and ERBB2 receptor), compared to other breast cancer subtypes.
Triple negative breast cancer is currently treated as if it’s a single disease, yet it’s clear from this study that patients’ tumours vary drastically across a spectrum of cellular mutations involved in the cancer’s development. Currently, triple negative breast cancer accounts for 16 per cent of all breast cancer diagnoses and approximately 25 per cent of breast cancer deaths.
This discovery builds on Dr. Sam Aparicio’s landmark study of 2009 (Nature) that showed for the first time how genome sequencing can be used to follow the evolution of breast cancers.
In approximately 20 per cent of cases studied, the tumours revealed groupings of genetic mutations that already have potential clinical treatment options in the pipeline. This leads researchers and clinicians toward a future where patients’ tumours could be sequenced as a means to better direct targeted therapies.
Pinpointing the exact cellular mutations involved is an important first step in understanding why patients respond differently to treatment. More effective treatments come from being able to identify and target the genetic factors that play a role in the cancer’s growth.
This discovery implies that researchers and clinicians won’t fully understand triple negative breast cancers until they are studied through routine sequencing. In fact, the study suggests there is value in looking at patients’ responses to treatment based on their tumours’ genetic features.
Scientists and clinicians are working toward a future of personalized medicine, supported by regular collaboration with the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre, to unlock the genetic clues about the causes and spread of cancer. The newly discovered cancer-related genes and mutation patterns from this research could become the targets for more effective treatments or the markers for a more personalized diagnosis.
This study was carried out in collaboration with Drs. Damaraju and Mackey at the Alberta Cancer Research Biorepository/CBCF Tumor Bank. The research was generously supported by the BC Cancer Foundation, Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation - BC/Yukon Region and Prairies/NWT Region, Alberta Cancer Foundation, Alberta Cancer Prevention Legacy Fund and Alberta Innovates-Health Solutions, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and Cancer Research UK at the University of Cambridge.
Dr. Sam Aparicio, study lead, Professor, Dept. Pathology and Lab Medicine UBC; BC Cancer Agency Chair of Breast Cancer Research
“Our results show that triple negative breast cancer is not just one uniform subtype of breast cancer; it’s actually extremely complex, with each cancer at a different stage in the evolutionary process at the time of diagnosis, which helps to explain why patient responses to treatment differ greatly,”
“What’s extremely motivating with these findings is the opportunity to design clinical trials for patients with triple negative breast cancer so we can explore patient responses to treatment at the genetic level and look at ways to improve therapies and outcomes for patients.”
Dr. Marco Marra, study co-lead, Director, BC Cancer Agency’s Genome Sciences Centre; Professor, Dept. of Medical Genetics, UBC
“Its tremendously exciting for the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre to be a part of this landmark work, which offers new and important insight into the genetic diversity that characterizes this terrible disease.”
Professor Carlos Caldas, study co-lead, senior group leader at Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute and the Department of Oncology, University of Cambridge
“As the current work shows, future sequence-guided clinical trials will require collaborations between major cancer centers able to recruit the required numbers of patients from an increasingly better defined disease. That is now one of the priorities of the Breast Cancer Program in Cambridge.”
Dr. Sohrab Shah, study co-lead and scientist, BC Cancer Agency; Assistant Professor, Dept. of Pathology and Computer Science, UBC
“Our study shows that insights from mathematical and computational models of evolution in cancer patients, informed by precise genetic measurements will be required for future translational research in cancer.”
Dr. Samuel Abraham, VP Research, BC Cancer Agency
“Revelations such as this show that the support of research is critically needed in providing necessary insights that will someday change outcomes in this cancer as with other cancers linked to a poor prognosis."
Douglas Nelson, President and CEO, BC Cancer Foundation
“This is an exciting advancement for such a deadly form of breast cancer, which brings hope to BC Cancer Foundation donors, who have generously supported leading-edge breast cancer research at the BC Cancer Agency.”