FORT MYERS, Fla. - Cancer is the second leading cause of death in America behind heart disease and ovarian cancer is one of the toughest to catch. When it is discovered, it's often in the late stages. That's just one of the reasons doctors at Florida Gynecologic Oncology in Fort Myers are on the lookout for studies their patients can join.
"Yeah I was scared. I as shocked," said Bernie Garabed when she recalled what it was like to hear her stage three ovarian cancer diagnosis.
In 2007 she got a clean bill of health during her routine gynecological exam. A few months later she didn't feel right and went back to the doctor.
"I went from nothing to stage three," she remembered.
Bernie made an appointment with Dr. Edward Grendys at Florida Gynecologic Oncology in Fort Myers. She was treated aggressively but three years later, the cancer was back. Dr. Grendys suggested Bernie may benefit from signing up for a national study.
"By participating in a clinical trial, she was afforded to get a therapy that was not available to the general public," said Dr. Grendys.
That study included three drugs: two chemotherapies and something called Avastin, "a drug that prevents new blood vessel growth," Dr. Grendys explained.
"While Avastin may not kill tumor cells per se, they may prevent the growth or re-growth of tumors that are existing," he said.
Bernie's been on Avastin ever since, three years running.
"So we are now seven-plus year after her initial diagnosis, without disease," Dr. Grendys said.
Without disease and living without the horrible side effects she's seen with other chemotherapy treatments.
"Maintaining her normal employment status and doing everything she wants to do... there's no hair loss with it, basically no fatigue, no interruption outside her normal lifestyle, outside of coming in every three weeks," Dr. Grendys told us. "...this has been a very exciting part of this research."
Another groundbreaking therapy being tested on ovarian cancer patients is something called HIPEC, or heated chemotherapy. You only go through one dose of chemo and it's done on the operating table after the tumor is removed. The chemo is heated to about 108 degrees, enough to make some patients break out in a sweat.
"The heated portion may increase the kill rate of the chemotherapy itself," said Dr. Grendys.
Heated chemo is being used at certain facilities across the country including M.D. Anderson in Orlando. Researchers are still looking at results to see how it works best.
"Each one of our therapies that we've looked at, when we've refined it to a degree, has basically improved the survivorship of ovarian cancer," Dr. Grendys said. "Again, we've gone from eight to 12 months [survival rate] multiple years ago, [to] upwards of five years. That's not uncommon and it's very common for us to cure patients."
And as technology and research progresses, one day traditional chemotherapy may be gone for good.
"I think we're going to have a burgeoning new field of hopefully non-toxic medications in the future. They won't be the type of chemotherapy that we think of today-- the hair-loss producing, the nausea-producing type drugs," said Dr. Grendys.
The good news about participating in a study, in general, the cost of medications are covered. And in the study Bernie was involved with, that's very good news because Avastin is very expensive. It can cost between $10,000 to $14,000 per dose.
Dr. Grendys tells us he's always on the lookout for national trials for his patients to participate in and at any given time, his office may be part of at least a dozen studies.