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Lung cancer therapy offers new hope

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http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/p ... _20101013/

When you meet Michael Weitz, you immediately notice his friendly demeanor, warm smile and penchant for hugs. Next you learn about his loving wife, Janice, and his three teenage sons, Steven, Robbie and David. And, most likely, you find out that he’s an emergency medical physician and the associate medical director at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica.

As a lung-cancer patient, he doesn’t like to talk about being sick. Instead, the Woodland Hills resident beams with pride about participating in cutting-edge research.

Weitz, who never smoked, was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer more than three years ago. Among those diagnosed with the disease, 74 percent have metastisized lung cancer. The five-year survival rate is about 15 percent, which hasn’t changed in 40 years.

After his diagnosis, Weitz turned to Rabbi Edward Feinstein — also a cancer survivor — at his synagogue, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino. The rabbi offered Weitz three pieces of advice: First, the constant pit in his stomach would go away; second, many wonderful angels would enter his life.

“It reaffirms your faith in humanity in this somewhat cynical world when you have people who continue to give and care and be a part of your life,” Weitz said.

The third piece of advice from the rabbi: Good health is a blessing, not an entitlement.

This statement, in particular, stuck with Weitz. “We don’t picture the end of the road; we’re just focused on what lies ahead,” he said.

Weitz went through myriad lung cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, traditional radiation, removal of his left lung and radiation to his bones and brain. Around the time of his surgery, he started a targeted drug therapy, which aims to wipe out only abnormal cells. He responded to this drug for two years before he built up a resistance.

Soon after, Weitz’s mother called him with news about a lung cancer patient who was receiving a targeted treatment based on an ALK gene mutation, which is present in 4 to 5 percent of lung cancer patients. Weitz was soon tested and found to be positive for the mutation. He began a targeted therapy this past January, and after eight weeks he experienced a 60 percent tumor reduction; after 16 weeks, the disease was minimal. As of one month ago, a scan showed no evidence of the disease. “This truly was a game changer in my mind,” he said.

Now Weitz is encouraging other lung cancer patients to get tested for the ALK gene mutation.

Weitz says very little money is given each year to lung cancer research, primarily because of the stigma that lung cancer is a smoker’s disease. Among the new cases being diagnosed, 45 to 50 percent are former smokers (who quit 10 to 30 years ago) and 15 percent never smoked.

Weitz says that having lung cancer has been an education. As a doctor, he says, he is more tuned in to his patients. “I can realize the challenges they’re about to go through and better communicate to them that I’ll be there if they need me,” Weitz said.

He continues to fight lung cancer one step at a time. “I don’t expect to be cured,” Weitz said. “My hope is a series of bridges. That one therapy is a bridge that leads me to the next therapy and that more and more are developed.” While some people believe there is nothing less than a cure, Weitz hopes instead that there is a way to manage the disease.

He continues to lean on the support of his synagogue. “What lifts people when they’re down is the community, and I found great strength in the Jewish community that we have at VBS and other friends as well,” he said.

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