NEW ORLEANS — There could be a way to look inside your body and find undiagnosed cancer.
That’s exactly what a simple test is doing.
The test is here in the New Orleans area and already saving lives.
Jim Ford, of Sacramento, got his dream job after he retired from his career in car sales.
“I told my wife, I said, ‘I can’t be just sitting around doing nothing all the time. I need to have something to do. So, if I ever see a help wanted sign on the golf course, I’m going to try and get a part time job,’” said Ford, 77.
And he did. Two days a week, he’s the assistant manager of the pro shop at a community golf course, but that dream was nearly shattered when his doctor asked him to join a clinical trial.
It was easy. All Jim had to do was give a blood sample. Then the results came back.
When asked what went through his mind when he got the results, he replied, “Fear, terror. I thought OK, this is not good.”
That quick and easy blood test told Jim he had pancreatic cancer. It’s the one that at the time was taking the life of “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek. It has the highest death rate of all major cancers.
“Now, at that point, I’m thinking that’s a death sentence. I got to be honest with you. I just, my wife, when I finally told her, she literally collapsed on the living room floor sobbing,” Ford remembers.
The blood test that Jim had is called Galleri. It can find 50 types of cancer before you ever have symptoms.
“It really finds all the super scary cancers that we are worried about, right?” said Dr. David Myers, an internal medicine physician in Metairie.
Dr. Myers remembers losing a friend and fellow physician to cancer several years ago. Dr. Keith Collins was only 45. Four-thousand people drove around with car magnets showing their support for a cure. It’s one of the reasons Dr. Myers offers all his Galleri patients.
“Watching him go through the end of his life, and the impact that that had. Wow, this is a game changer. We can really do something different that we’ve never had the opportunity to do before,” Dr. Myers said.
One healthy patient of his found cancer she had no idea she had.
“She’s got a greater than 85 percent chance of cure, because we found it when we did,” he said.
Another one of his patients, Lee Anne Sciambra, also took the test.
“He offered it to me and I was like, ‘Where do I sign up?’” Sciambra said laughing.
She lost her mother to early breast cancer. Her mom was only in her 50s. One of her two sisters also got breast cancer at a young age. With her mamograms and breast MRIs, Lee Anne wants to make sure she finds anything wrong before it can even show up on a scan.
“I added this just for even more peace of mind, because I have a daughter graduating from high school, and I’ve built a career for 30 years, and I have a son who’s going into his sophomore year. So, there’s a lot of reasons to make sure I’m staying on top of it,” Sciambra said.
Her Galleri test was negative.
When asked if that result helps her sleep at night, she replied, “it does.”
Galleri finds the DNA, those genetic markers from cancer, that are in the blood. The two it won’t find are brain cancer and early melanoma skin cancer. Those don’t have genetic finger prints in the blood. Right now insurance doesn’t pay. And even with the test, you should still have your regular colon, breast, cervical and prostate exams.
Over at Ochsner, Dr. Marc Matrana is getting ready for a Galleri clinical trial. Just as with Dr. Myers, you can get the test now if you pay out of pocket, but in a few months, 10,000 healthy people 50 and older, from all backgrounds, will get the test free if they qualify for the Ochsner study.
“Our goal is to diagnose cancer much earlier, so that we can cure it before it even develops symptoms in many cases. Typically, in most cases it’s going to tell you the exact type of cancer whether it’s lung cancer, whether it’s colon cancer,” said Dr. Marc Matrana and oncologist and Medical Director for Precision Medicine at Ochsner.
Too often, Dr. Matrana sees patients diagnosed with stage 4 cancers.
“Often we have patients who have families, young children, and you know it’s heart breaking when we have to tell these people they have a terminal illness. If we could catch that earlier, if we could save their lives, it makes a huge impact not only on the patients’ lives, but also on their entire family,” he said.
The Galleri test is 99.5 percent accurate when it comes back positive for an active cancer in your body.
“In fact, the statistics that the modeling shows, is that if this test was done wide spread, we might prevent up to 40 percent of cancer deaths in this country every year,” Dr. Matrana noted.
Jim was one of cancer deaths that was prevented. His pancreatic cancer was found in stage 2, something doctors like hi , rarely get to see.
“She was asked, ‘What’s it like to find stage 2 pancreatic cancer in a patient?’ She said, ‘It’s like hitting the lottery,’” remembers Ford.
Jim had surgery, chemo, and radiation, and is cancer free.
I asked “Jim, I mean, literally you owe your life to this blood test right? He replied, “Absolutely. What if I’d said no to the test? It’s just, I keep coming back to that all the time. What if I’d said no? I probably wouldn’t still be here,” said Ford.
Nor would he be back working in the golf shop, at 77, with no limitations at all.
The test is not covered by insurance right now.
It costs between $800-$950.
Thousands of people 50 and older, who are not being treated for cancer, can join the Ochsner study and take the test free.
Call 888-995-7405 or email email@example.com. There’s also a website.
Ochsner’s academics and research team will also begin enrolling participants aged 50 years and older who are not actively being evaluated or treated for cancer in the ongoing PATHFINDER 2 study. This is a prospective, multi-center interventional study of the Galleri test that aims to enroll 20,000 participants through healthcare systems in North America. Participants who have a “cancer signal detected” test result will undergo a targeted diagnostic evaluation based on predicted cancer signal origin(s) through the Ochsner Cancer Institute to determine if cancer is present.
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