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New Cancer Treatments Bringing Hope of Longer Survival for Some Kinds of Cancer

Parma Heights resident, Laura Denoto Kurka, reads bible verse to her husband Chris. Kurka has lung cancer and is on a drug that helped her tumor shrink in one month.
Parma Heights resident, Laura Denoto Kurka, reads bible verse to her husband Chris. Kurka has lung cancer and is on a drug that helped her tumor shrink in one month.

Recent advances in so-called targeted therapy drugs are bringing hope of longer survival for some lung cancer patients in advanced stages of the disease.

Lung cancer is a leading cause of cancer deaths nationally and in Northeast Ohio. About 1 out of 4 cancer deaths are from lung cancer and death rates in Cleveland are higher than the national average.

59-year-old Parma Heights resident, Laura Denoto Kurka, is one of the people locally who is benefiting from one of these lung cancer treatments. Kurka has non-small cell lung cancer. She was diagnosed with the disease last November and was placed on drug called Xalkori in December.

Xalkori was approved by the Food and Drug Administration about a year ago to treat people with advanced non-small cell lung cancer. It is just one of the drugs rapidly changing treatment for some forms of cancer. After just one month on the drug, Kurka was scheduled to have a lung biopsy so doctors could examine tissue samples from the site of her cancer. She was prepped and ready for the procedure when University Hospitals radiologist, Dr. Nami Azar, called a halt to the procedure.

“Today on her prescreening test, you know the one we use to acquire the biopsy, the lesion’s almost gone. It almost disappeared and she does not require any biopsy for now,” Dr. Azar said.

With the drug therapy her tumor shrank from a measurement of 16 millimeters down to about seven millimeters in just one month,  he said.

“So this is almost a four-fold decrease in the size,” Dr. Azar added.

A year ago, Kurka had no idea cancer cells were growing in her body.  Back then she was more concerned with knee pain. She and her long-time boyfriend, Chris Kurka married shortly after her knee replacement surgery in the summer of 2016. But as the months went by the newlyweds were confronted with a problem.  Kurka didn’t seem to be healing from her surgery and the pain moved to her hips.

Her doctor ordered a bone biopsy to find out why she had so much pain.

“When they got the results of the bone biopsy all he told me was it is cancer and it started in your lungs and I was totally floored because there’s nothing wrong with my lungs,” Kurka said.

She later learned her disease was advanced – stage four. Stage four means the cancer has spread from her lungs to other parts of her body – her bones and liver.

“It was a lot to take in because a month earlier I was waiting for my knee to get better from surgery -- not dealing with a cancer diagnosis,” she said.

Ten years ago lung cancer was considered one disease and all patients were treated with either surgery, chemo or radiation, but now there are targeted treatments for specific kinds of lung cancers, said her oncologist University Hospitals Dr. Afshin Dowlati.

These targeted therapy medications are for people with a specific mutation in their cancer which the drugs can attack.

“What we are seeing in this form of lung cancer is there are small subgroups that have specific genetic abnormalities within the cancer that result in cancer growth. Once we’ve detected the mutation many of the mutations have specific drugs against them blocks the growth of the cancer,” Dr. Dowlati said.

There is a catch, however, many of these targeted therapy drugs don’t work forever. The Xalkori usually works about a year.

“But that’s just the median or average. In some people it will work less and in some people it will work for many years,” he said.

When this medication stops working, they will try another combination of drugs that will potentially buy her more time. The science is moving very fast, Dr. Dowlati said.

According to the National Cancer institute, results from a major clinical trial on Xalkori showed it is effective in treating cancer patients like Kurka. The study, published in the The New England Journal of Medicine,  concluded that at least in the short term, “Crizotinib (Xalkori) is superior to standard chemotherapy in patients with previously treated, advanced non–small-cell lung cancer.”

For Kurka, the success of the drug therapy is giving this her and her husband hope. The pain in her hips is starting to ease up and they are thinking of finally going on a honeymoon.

“Thank God that it's available and it’s here and that it’s helping people because so many cancer patients, when they find out that its advanced, well they just go downhill. Well this pill has given me the opportunity to actually start feeling better, ” Kurka said.



Marlene Harris-Taylor
Marlene is the director of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.