In June 2014, I had the joy of filming a cancer segment with Jane Seymour for her series "Feel Grand" supported by Grandparents.com for Detroit Public TV (disclosure, I am on the Grandparents.com medical advisory panel). The series will begin to air in October (Oct. 6 in Detroit and Oct. 8 in Los Angeles, and you can check your local PBS station for details).
Jane Seymour has had a remarkable career. Precociously, she studied ballet and performed at age 13 with the London Festival Ballet and with the Kirov Ballet companies. Later, after starring in the James Bond thriller "Live and Let Die" in 1973, she became best known for "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman" (1993-1998) and "The Wedding Crasher" (2005). Well known to most movie and TV fans, she has won two Golden Globes, one Emmy, and her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With unlimited energy, it seems, she has her own philanthropic foundation, Open Hearts, dedicated to positively impacting lives. Examples of her creative side can be found in her jewelry, fine art, books, furniture, botanicals, wall molding, books and soon also in fashion.
While rehearsing for our taping of "Feel Grand," Jane told me the story of her dad, a gynecologist in England. When she repeated her story on air in front of the studio audience, she became even more animated and passionate about her experience and the dilemma she had faced. After retiring, her father developed severe leg pains, but Jane said her father's doctor did not order X-rays or scans to completely evaluate the symptom. After some time, further tests diagnosed the problem: advanced lung and bone cancer. Her father was not considered healthy enough for chemotherapy because of the late stage of diagnosis. Jane was frustrated about how she could help her dad to reduce his pain, have a better quality life and live longer.
After some searching, she found a possible solution. Although at that time experimental and unproven, an immunotherapy program offered the possibility of control of the cancer and its symptoms. But Jane was sure her father, because of his commitment to standard care, would never accept it. But she had to suggest it because she believed in the hope it might give him. After Jane described it to her dad, to her astonishment her father called her the very next day and said he would go with it, and asked how soon could they get started. He entered the program, got the immunotherapy plus radiation, and improved. For months his quality of life was better. Jane and her father could spend more time together.
What is remarkable is that now, years later, immunotherapy has become a standard treatment for some cancers. For example, in melanoma, a life threatening skin cancer, a new immunotherapy drug ipilimumab, targeting the CTLA-4 immune checkpoint, has produced 26 percent long term control and possibly cure, even in patients with widespread cancer. My experience with this immunotherapy in my patients has been very beneficial. And drugs targeting a different immune pathway, PD1 and PDL-1, are resulting in remarkable improvements in patients with melanoma, kidney cancer, and lung cancer. Indeed, one of those breakthrough drugs, pembrolizumab, has recently been approved by the FDA for melanoma treatment.
What should we learn from Jane Seymour's challenging dilemma with her father and her compassionately successful solution? Here are my tips.
• When you have a symptom that is not getting better, like Jane's dad, get a second opinion immediately to diagnose and treat it correctly. For more information on how and where to get a second opinion, see my book Surviving American Medicine.
• If someone in your family is facing a life-threatening situation, become an advocate and learn about the disease and its treatments. Help the patient to understand the choices and, together with the doctor, empower the patient to make the best decision. Jane became the advocate for her dad with great results.
• Seek out not only standard treatments, but also investigational clinical trials that can offer additional hope and disease control.
• Like Jane did, consider the patient's quality of life in evaluating possible treatments.
• Watch the public TV series "Feel Grand" when it is airing in your city. You will raise your understanding of health, and be prepared to make the correct decisions you face in staying well and confronting illness.