By Sherri Richards, Published January 13 2003
Going for a trial run: West Fargo man helps take on cancer as part of national study
His wife, Georgia, has it marked down -- 16 trips in the past two years, with more still to come.
Each trip brought chemotherapy treatments, injections, aches and pains.
But Mike says the experience has been gratifying.
He's helping researchers create a cure for cancer.
"If nothing else, at least I'm able to give something back," he says.
Mike was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer in December 2000 during a regular checkup and was referred to an oncologist at MeritCare Roger Maris Cancer Center.
With non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer, tumors grow and spread through the lymphatic system, which includes the spleen, thymus, lymph nodes and bone marrow.
There was a 7-centimeter tumor in Mike's abdomen and smaller tumors in the remainder of his lymph nodes.
"My whole body was contaminated," he says.
Because his cancer was far along, in the third stage, his doctor recommended he become involved with a clinical trial and referred him to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda.
There, researchers are testing a cancer vaccine.
While most vaccines are used for prevention, a cancer vaccine is used as a treatment.
Cancer vaccines are a new frontier in biotherapy, says Sandra Snow, a clinical research nurse for the National Cancer Institute's medical oncology program.
"Anything that manipulates the cell falls under the category of biotherapy," Snow says. "This is another tool in our arsenal of therapy."
Follicular lymphoma cancer has a tendency to return. Snow says the vaccine allows the immune system to recognize and destroy abnormal cells.
"It's giving the body what it needs to prevent the reoccurrence of the cancer," Snow says.
Mike met the qualifications for the study, but he was hesitant because of the possible side effects, including diabetes, thinning of bones and leukemia.
"When you get into what the chemo does to your system and what the possible side effects are, it's really possibly devastating," he says.
"We about backed out when we read that," Georgia says.
"In retrospect, I'm glad we didn't," Mike says.
His flights were paid for and he received a small stipend for lodging. A tumor was removed from Mike's groin to make his cancer vaccine. In March 2001, he started six months of chemotherapy in Fargo, with regular trips to the National Institute of Health.
The chemotherapy was successful, and after six months in remission, Mike went to Maryland once a month for five months to receive shots.
He says the injections caused him to swell up the first two times, and also gave him "growing pains" in his legs.
"There were nights I couldn't sleep," he says.
Final stage of study
The study is in its third and final stage, in which it compares the vaccine against the standard therapy of chemotherapy. But the study will not be completed for several years.
"The results are very early in the study," Snow says. "Before we say things are successful, we need to wait at least five years."
And Mike won't know whether he received the vaccine or a placebo -- a general boost to the immune system -- until then.
"I personally don't think I got the vaccine," he says.
"But you always tend to be a little more negative than positive," Georgia says. "He needs to have a more positive attitude."
Mike does have a positive attitude about the study.
"Once this is through and it proves out the way they're thinking it's going to be proved, it will be considered a cure," he says.
Snow says recruitment of 550 patients needed for the study has been slower than hoped. As of November, 120 had enrolled.
Researchers are always looking for more patients like Mike, Snow says.
"We can't make any headway unless people come into clinical trials," she says. "He's been a wonderful subject in this study. It's people like him who are helping us make advances in cancer research."
The Tuchscherers feel that this was the best treatment they could have received. Mike will be checked continually to ensure the cancer does not return. He will fly back to Bethesda again in March for a full CAT scan.
"There are certain times that you need to go outside, and partake in these types of deals, to proliferate the cures," he says. "If somebody else doesn't have to go through what I had to down the road, great, that's wonderful."
He knocks on wood.
"I hope I won't have to go through it again."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5525