HONOLULU (The Honolulu Star Advertiser) – Mary Bona had been living with a slow-growing but incurable cancer since 2006.
Over the summer the cancer in her gut grew significantly despite several rounds of chemotherapy and other treatments.
That’s when her doctor found out about a specialized radiation treatment approved earlier this year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to target hard-to-reach neuroendocrine tumors. Neuroendocrine tumors are a group of rare cancers that originate primarily from the pancreas or intestines.
The new procedure allows doctors to intravenously inject radiation into a chemical that “acts as vehicle” to carry the cancer-killing drug directly to the tumors. The procedure is time-sensitive — the novel medication developed in the Netherlands was flown to Oahu from Italy with a tight expiration date.
“I was excited and I feel great,” Bona said in September, following the hourlong procedure. “I gave myself to the Lord. He’s going to take care of me.”
Bona was the first patient in Hawaii to undergo the procedure at The Queen’s Medical Center. Following the treatment, she was “radioactive” and placed in isolation for about six hours while taking a special formula of amino acids to protect other areas of her body from the radiation. She remained isolated at home for three days until her radiation levels decreased.
“There has been no really good treatment to kill the cancer up until this point,” said Dr. Marc Coel, Queen’s medical director of nuclear medicine, who oversaw the procedure. “This will go to different parts of the body without exposing normal tissues to radiation. This is the first treatment that is actually targeting this cancer to kill it.”
There are about 60 new patients in Hawaii a year with conditions like Bona’s, but many more who are living with the cancer, he said.
Bona’s doctor, Clayton Chong, chief of oncology at Queen’s, said most of the cancer treatments have not been curative, but palliative to control symptoms. However, current clinical trials have found the new procedure can significantly affect survival rates, with up to four times higher chance of controlling the disease. The standard treatments control the cancer for an average eight months, while the new treatment has been shown to control it for 28 months and counting in studies, he said.
“There’s finally a treatment that can make an impact whereas most previous treatments were controlling symptoms and actually letting the disease grow over the years. This one will actually make an impact on survival,” Chong said. “We haven’t reached the end point yet. I believe this treatment is a game changer.”
However, most insurance companies don’t pay for experimental investigative treatments. Bona’s carrier had agreed to pay for hers.
“I have at least three or four patients fighting with their insurance companies to get approval to get the treatment. A lot of newer treatments are so expensive that a lot of patients are not able to afford it,” he said. “There are probably several hundred of these patients in Hawaii.”
Each treatment runs about to $20,000 to $30,000, and patients need four doses in an eight-month period.
“When we were diagnosed we were told she was never going to beat this cancer and to learn to live life with the cancer,” said Bona’s daughter Kanani Yojo, an oncology nurse at Queen’s. “This wasn’t something we thought would be available in our lifetime. This is so exciting. We’re going for the cure.”
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