Briggs Sanderson, a writer, producer, and costume designer, was young, beautiful, talented and loved. She also had the unfortunate fate of developing stage IV rectal cancer, diagnosed in April of 2007.
Together Briggs and her husband Paul Sanderson battled her cancer for 15 months. Briggs was treated with chemotherapy to control the growing, inoperable tumor and the metastases in her lungs.
Throughout this terrible journey, Paul did hundreds upon hundreds of hours of research. He had written articles on nutrition in the past and so was used to the process. He emailed with pre-eminent doctors in every specialty about Briggs's condition to try to come up with a way to halt the cancer’s growth and spread.
He discovered that immunotherapy treatments for cancer might be a better path to follow.
Immunotherapies use the immune system to fight the cancer and have increasingly been bringing remissions in advanced cancer cases at such institutions as UCLA, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Hoping Briggs might be one of those cases, he worked tirelessly to try to get an immunotherapeutic vaccine developed by a U.K. biotech company. Its first trial had a high response rate, and two patients with stage IV colorectal cancer had achieved complete remissions.
A major drug company had then bought the rights, but did not continue taking it through clinical trials, so it sat unavailable for use.
Undaunted, Paul started a petition on a U.K. site to get Briggs compassionate access. It was signed by 4,000 people, including actors Susan Sarandon, Alan Rickman and Jimmy Smits.
Paul also called 48 hospitals around the United States to look for a leftover supply from the last trial, because an important contact at the drug company said he'd help facilitate getting it for Briggs if Paul could locate some.
Finally, after a year of trying, Paul heard from the Entertainment Industry Foundation and Stand Up To Cancer that they were arranging for Katie Couric to make a personal appeal to the CEO of the drug company.
Just four days later, Paul lost Briggs to complications brought on in what was meant to be a short emergency hospital stay.
After losing Briggs, Paul set up an extension of the petition on Change.org, the Petition for Briggs for Cancer Immunotherapy for All.
It has now been signed by 25 stars of film, media, and tennis, including Bradley Cooper, Scarlett Johansson, Naomi Watts, Penelope Cruz, Rob Lowe, Meredith Vieira, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, documentarian Ken Burns and EmpowHER founder Michelle King Robson. Six eminent professors of oncology have also added their names to the call.
EmpowHer had an opportunity to interview Paul Sanderson. Paul is an Australian-American author, playwright, screenwriter, director and actor. He recently returned to Australia to work on a project.
Why do you think more immunotherapies to treat cancer are not as heavily researched as chemotherapy drugs are?
There's been an active resistance to immunotherapy in the medical profession and the cancer industry. It dates back to the 1890s, when the first immunotherapeutic vaccine was used to cure hundreds of terminal sarcoma patients at the hospitals that would become New York-Presbyterian and Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
I wrote about it, and the misinformation still being perpetuated, in an article published by the Medical Journal of Australia's MJA InSight.
The drugs that have been given priority for so long, extending patients' lives in terms of months, have also been making billions of dollars, while the drugs to manage the side effects of those drugs and chemotherapy have been making billions more.
Immunotherapy has slowly been becoming an irresistible force, but it's been to the major drug companies' advantage to leave that development to the universities and smaller drug and biotech companies.
Have you seen an increase in immunotherapy research in recent years?
Yes. Stand Up to Cancer now has a dream team in Immunology. Several companies are currently in a race to develop one particular immunotherapy that several university professors had a hand in. Most major universities are doing research. But, for example, a contact of mine is the Vice Chair of Neurosurgery at UCLA.
In some cases, she's been able to bring complete, lasting remissions in otherwise incurable grade IV brain cancer with an immunotherapeutic vaccine. That's been since 2003 and it's only now, 11 years later, going into a phase 3 trial. As part of compassionate use reform, the Right to Try movement is also succeeding at a state level.
How do you think signing the petition will help?
The petition is to reorient the primary direction of cancer research, treatment and funding to immunotherapy, and immunotherapeutic vaccines in particular. They invariably have none of the serious side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, nor secondary cancers like ABC’s broadcaster Robin Roberts had.
They can eliminate the need for most cancer surgeries, and there's good evidence that they can prevent recurrence because of immune-system memory. The media has reported isolated cures and studies. By reporting in depth on it, they can begin ushering in this new era within years instead of decades.
Even with 30 stars and professors having signed, the media tends to pay attention to petitions with large numbers. A surge in signing and Facebook sharing can get us there.
What advice do you have for others who are facing a similar cancer diagnosis?
I could offer general advice, but we found we needed a detailed guide. So many unfamiliar things are thrown at you so quickly. Briggs immediately began making notes to write a book to help other patients and caregivers. I ended up writing it in her memory, incorporating a lot of her notes. It was our last collaboration.
It's on Amazon in Kindle and paperback titled Briggs: Love, Cancer, and the Medical Profession.
It takes you through every step. Everything to avoid and everything we got right. One doctor wrote me that it had overturned his approach to medicine. But it's also about Briggs, and how important our bond was in getting through everything cancer and the medical profession can hit you with.
A woman wrote in a review that she's 60, an avid reader since she was a child, and that it's the most poignant love story she's ever read. That's because of my darling, ever-in-my-heart Briggs.
Edited by Jody Smith
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