A cure for cancer?
A Scott & White investigative pathologist who has successfully treated certain types of breast cancer and blocked tumors in laboratory mice believes his work is a major step in the fight against cancer.
Could a cure in humans be close at hand? Wendy LaBauve believes it is.
Mrs. LaBauve, a Lampasas Independent School District speech pathologist, is battling a rare form of breast and brain cancer. She lives through the devastating effects of chemotherapy treatments every day, and she is hopeful that testing of this new cancer treatment on primates will occur soon. From there, Food and Drug Administration approval for human clinical trials could be next.
Research is under way, led by Dr. Alexzander Asea, chief of the division of investigative pathology and associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, and director of the proteomics core facility at Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple.
Though his research is promising, Mrs. LaBauve said, the immunotherapy treatment may never be offered to cancer patients if pharmaceutical companies have their way.
“These companies stand to lose billions of dollars off sales of cancer-fighting drugs if cancer is cured,” she said. “That’s a lot of money, and there are a lot of powerful people who don’t want that to happen.”
What stands in Asea’s way also is money, but it is the lack of funding to continue his research that is the roadblock.
Though the doctor has applied for numerous grants -- and acquired several -- there is a long way to go before funds are available to produce an immunotherapy serum for trial on primates.
Mrs. LaBauve said about $500,000 is needed to get to that stage of research.
Mrs. LaBauve, who has been with the LISD for eight years, was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer more than two years ago at age 37.
Though she had been having sporadic sharp pains in her chest -- like a knife, she said -- Mrs. LaBauve said she began to experience some swelling in her chest along with “little bumps.” She believed them to be nothing serious. At a recent well-woman check-up, which included a manual breast examination, nothing unusual was found.
“I kept having headaches and when I went to have them checked out, the ENT [ear, nose and throat specialist] said I had a deviated septum,” Mrs. LaBauve said, as the doctor attributed her maladies to a simple sinus infection.
A CAT scan of her face soon afterward didn’t reveal anything either.
“But I showed the technician a lump I found in my neck, and he asked me if I was having night sweats. I told him I was.”
The ENT ordered a fineneedle aspiration just before Thanksgiving 2007. The first test came back with the diagnosis of a fatty tumor, but the physician decided to take the biopsy a little deeper.
“I wasn’t imagining anything like this when the technician’s supervisor told me I definitely had cancer. They said they weren’t sure at the time which form of cancer I had, so they sent the biopsy to the lab to confirm the diagnosis.”
It was stage 4 breast cancer in its most aggressive -- and deadly -- form.
In stage 4, the cancer metastasizes to other parts of the body. Mrs. LaBauve’s cancer had spread quickly to her brain.
Before testing showed it wasn’t just breast cancer, Mrs. LaBauve said she knew the terrible headaches she had been suffering weren’t normal. “I woke up one morning, and I felt so bad. I stood up to get out of bed, and I had to vomit immediately. I couldn’t stand up straight. I thought I was dying. I knew something was really wrong.” Her husband and stepson helped her to the car, and they drove straight to Scott & White Hospital. “I just knew I was going to die. I even started to write my will on a sticky note in the car. I never felt so sick.”
A CAT scan confirmed the cancer had spread to her brain. Four large tumors were found -- about two centimeters each or slightly larger than a half-dollar -- and 33 others about pea-size were discovered in her brain. “I expected it to be bad, but my husband didn’t. He fainted.”
After the diagnosis, Mrs. LaBauve was given intravenous steroids in an attempt to reduce brain swelling and shrink the tumors. Although the breast cancer was at an advanced stage, the brain cancer was the more immediate problem.
Soon after, Mrs. LaBauve was given whole-brain radiation, consisting of 12 treatments once a day.
A port was inserted in her chest through which chemotherapy treatments were administered, and she also took six pills of chemo medicine each day.
The prognosis wasn’t good. Mrs. LaBauve was given a few months to live.
“The doctor told me to take care of any arrangements I might need to make and to just be prepared,” she said. “I left there angry. He wasn’t going to tell me when I would die. Only God can tell me that.”
The chemotherapy and radiation shrunk the brain tumors, and because the treatments worked better than was hoped, Mrs. LaBauve was given two fewer treatments. Though that was good news, more bad news was soon to follow.
Most women with breast cancer undergo a double mastectomy as a matter of course, she said, followed by chemo and radiation treatments.
Because Mrs. LaBauve’s form of breast cancer grows in the skin and not in the glands, a mastectomy was not recommended initially.
Instead, she received massive amounts of chemotherapy. Only when that treatment showed some promise of killing the cancer cells did Mrs. LaBauve have a double mastectomy. “They wanted to kill the cancer before they removed the breasts,” she said.
In May 2008, Mrs. LaBauve began radiation treatments to her chest. The purpose was to burn off the skin where the cancer had formed. Each day for seven weeks she traveled to Temple and Killeen for 20-minute radiation treatments.
“That was the worst part,” she said. “It was just awful. It burned my skin so badly that I couldn’t even stand to have a shirt on. The radiation was killing all the cells in the skin, but at the same time it was burning me. To this day, I can feel heat coming from that part of my chest.”
Said Mrs. LaBauve of her treatments: “The doctor said I had as much radiation as if I was less than two miles from Hiroshima. It’s amazing that I don’t glow in the dark!”
In August 2008, she went to the emergency room after episodes of violent headaches returned. The physician told her that, as a matter of course, prior scar tissue would show up on a CAT scan.
“The doctor came in after the scan, and he said he couldn’t see any signs of prior metastasis. The brain scan showed no signs of any tumors. They were all gone.”
Stopping a cure?
In September 2009, Mrs. LaBauve’s first interaction with Asea came at a breast cancer retreat. The pathologist was on hand to share information about his latest research -- and successes -- in the battle against cancer.
Asea told the audience that cancer could be battled using herceptin, a medicine he said targets a protein found in about one-third of breast cancers. By interfering with the protein, Asea believed herceptin could stop cancer cell growth.
“We saw a movie at the retreat that was based on a true story,” said Mrs. LaBauve. “It showed how pharmaceutical companies do not want to find a cure for cancer. I realized that’s true.
“According to the movie, a cure has been sitting on a shelf for years. And I believe that. Women are dying because these companies do not want to release the medicine because it will cut into their profits.”
In the movie, the doctor’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and that convinced him to release the medicine, she said.
“The medicine is out there. Anyone who is HER 2-positive [Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor 2] can get the medicine, and it is proving to cure HER 2- positive breast cancer.”
Though Mrs. LaBauve’s cancer is not HER 2-positive, she believes the pathologist Asea is closing in on a cure for all cancers.
“I know that pharmaceutical companies want Band-Aid medicines for cancer because they are making millions upon millions of dollars from these drugs,” she said. “They aren’t thinking in terms of a cure. They are thinking in terms of treatment, but Dr. Asea is thinking in terms of a cure.”
Mrs. LaBauve said Asea has developed an immunotherapy for a certain breast cancer, and though it hasn’t yet been tested on humans, it has proven successful in lab rats.
Asea believes the immunotherapy triggers the body to fight the cancer by itself because it forces receptors of cancer to come out of dormant cells, weakening the exoskeleton of cancer and boosting the power of white blood cells.
“There’s never been a medicine able to affect cancer and boost white blood cells at the same time,” said Mrs. LaBauve. “But it makes sense when you think about it. The cancer is weak and exposed, and the white blood cells are stronger and smarter, and that’s what’s fighting the cancer.
“Dr. Asea said the immunotherapy could kill all breast cancers.”
Asea has been a researcher at Scott & White for five years. “He believes his immunotherapy shows the promise of possibly curing not just breast cancer but most types of cancer. And I am convinced of it.”
After trials on primates, the next hurdle is human testing. But the problem comes down to a lack of funding, said Mrs. LaBauve.
“Dr. Asea will not take money from pharmaceutical companies. He has received grants from Central Texas Veterans Health Administration, National Institute for Health, the National Cancer Institute, and Scott & White and Texas A&M.
“No money has come from the American Cancer Society,” she said. “I don’t understand why they wouldn’t support this. It just makes no sense. Isn’t that what we all want? A cure?”
Cancer is back
Mrs. LaBauve is more anxious than ever following a second diagnosis of breast cancer in November. And the disease has spread even further, metastasizing not only to the brain but to her bones, as well.
“I was cancer-free for 1 1/2 years, and now I have tumors in my brain and two tumors in my bones -- one in one of my ribs, and one in my hip bone near the spine.”
Unable to take any more radiation treatments, Mrs. LaBauve is undergoing chemotherapy once again. She takes a round of pills each day until “they don’t work anymore, and then we’ll have to try something else.”
The cost is staggering; her copay for the pills is $400 per month.
After her recent diagnosis, Mrs. LaBauve visited with Asea to check the status of his research. The doctor has redoubled his fundraising efforts and is waiting to hear about a half-dozen grants he applied for before he is able to move to the next step, she said.
Against the advice of her physicians, Mrs. LaBauve volunteered to be take part in one of the first clinical trials on humans if the FDA gives the go-ahead. “My doctors aren’t happy about that, but I have been through a lot, and I’d rather not have to keep having chemo.” The side effects include hair loss, nausea and drowsiness, among others.
“I have hope now; Dr. Asea has given me that,” Mrs. LaBauve said. “God could heal me again today, but I believe all of this happened at the right time, and my mission in life is to help others suffering with cancer.
“I do believe this will cure cancer. I really believe there will, one day, be a vaccine and booster shot developed for cancer, just like there was for smallpox.
“This immunotherapy is not a form of chemo,” she added. “It triggers our body to fight the cancer without chemo.”
Mrs. LaBauve also has volunteered to be a breast cancer advocate this summer and will spend time working with Asea and others to make sure the research continues to move along expeditiously.
She and other advocates will split time among Scott & White Hospital and MD Anderson Cancer Hospital in Houston.
Asea’s research sounds so promising to Mrs. LaBauve that she is inviting local residents to hear the doctor speak in Lampasas on April 28 at 4:30 p.m. in the former Lampasas Middle School cafeteria, 207 East Avenue A.
She will address those in attendance prior to introducing the pathologist, who will share information on the status of his research. The pair also hope to garner some funds.
“We have to get to that $500,000 mark to be able to move on to the next phase of research,” Mrs. LaBauve said. “That is an important number.”
Even though she has been worn down from treatments, Mrs. LaBauve doesn’t sit at home while she is ill. She works full time at two LISD campuses while raising her family. And the Lampasas community has been wonderful to her, she said.
The LaBauves plan to move to Harker Heights to be nearer her friends and the large support system she has found in the community.
“It has been overwhelming, what they have done for me,” she said. Many of her co-workers have donated their sick leave days, while others make dinners for her family. “There is no way I can thank everyone for what they are doing. They are like family to me,” she added.
“I just can’t stay at home and be depressed. I still want to work. But now I have another mission in life. The Lord Jesus healed me the first time. I have no doubt.
“I’m not just a survivor; I fight every day. I didn’t just have cancer 10 years ago, it is very real to me every day. I just put one foot in front of the other each day. And I go on, just as do millions of others like me. But I have hope, and now so can others with cancer.
“I believe the cure for cancer is out there, and it is coming.”