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Beyond Her Bucket List, Cancer Fighter Sees a Surprising Future

Whenever she goes to Las Vegas, she plays roulette.

Deb McCartney doesn’t usually bet the red or the black numbers. She places her money on double zero. The double zero spot on the roulette wheel is green.

Actually, picking one number is the worst bet on the board, when you consider the odds. The little ball has about a 2.6 percent chance of landing on double zero. (The best bet, by the way, is placing your money on all the red or black numbers, which gives you close to a 50 percent chance of winning).

But, when she hits the double zero, that bet pays off at a rate of 35 to 1.

“Always bet on green,” she said.

For some reason, she keeps putting her money on that same bad bet. Relying on a miracle, for her, makes winning more fun.

“It worked a lot,” she said.

Her life, what’s left of it, is a double zero bet.

As you read this, Deb McCartney, 61, has already checked off most of the items on her bucket list. She is a cancer patient, who, by pure luck, was included in the study of a new drug. Her life was reduced to two things: planning for death and dying.

Sunrises are prettier, she said, when they are the last thing you will ever see.

Plans for the end

Deb McCartney had beaten cancer once, a battle with cervical cancer in 1989 that scared her but didn’t kill her.

“Dodged a bullet there,” she said.

But beating cancer twice? That seemed like too much to ask.

In February 2018, she was living in Durango, Colorado, working as an administrator in a hospital, when her back started to hurt. Then she developed a cough.

McCartney thought she had pneumonia.

She flew to Orange County – she was raised in Costa Mesa – for testing on her lungs. Hoag Hospital was the place she trusted.

The news she received on March 29, 2018, was as bad as it could possibly be.

She had lung cancer, and it was inoperable. By the time doctors confirmed it was there, the cancer had spread to her breasts, bones, lymph nodes and brain.

“I was dying,” McCartney said.

She wrote her sisters an almost upbeat email that started with a picture of Easter eggs (as the holiday was near) and went on to describe her horrible news.

The email ended this way: “As for now I am super skinny as I have lost a LOT of weight … So think of yummy fattening things for me to eat!  Yummmm! LOVE LOVE LOVE YOU, Debbo”

McCartney moved almost immediately from Durango, deciding to live out her days with her older sister, Dayna. Her home base became Dayna’s couch, which folded out into a bed.

“She was a mess,” Dayna said.

Food stopped tasting good. Her weight kept dropping. She said she dropped 40 pounds in a month. And that was just the beginning.

Dying, she learned, is hard.

She had to sell her condo in Durango. She had to pay off all her bills as not to leave debts for her family. She quit her job. McCartney started in a clinical trial for a drug that made her skin peel.

“It’s not working,” she told anyone who would listen.

She paid for a plot at Pacific View Memorial Park and Mortuary in Corona del Mar. Then, she made another big decision.

“I didn’t want to be buried cold under the ground,” she said, explaining her choice: cremation.

She flew to Hawaii and sat in first class. There were trips to Vegas and bets on double zero.

Her deterioration continued to the point that her next bucket list item – Disneyland – could only be achieved with the help of a wheelchair. She remembers going on Peter Pan, Dumbo and Mr. Toad rides … and the pain of it all.

“I couldn’t stay,” she said. “I was too weak.”

Confined to the couch, she started making a list of the last movies she wanted to see. “As Good as It Gets.” “Sleepless in Seattle.” “Pride and Prejudice.”

She made a list of the last songs she wanted to hear. “The River” by Garth Brooks. “Seminole Wind” by John Anderson.

“We would cry together,” Dayna said. “It was heartbreaking.”

It got to the point where Dayna had to wake her up and coax her to go look at the sunrise.

Each day could have been her last.

‘Given up hope’

Dr. Parkash Gill has been working in the clinic at USC for almost 10 years on a recombinant albumin fusion protein called sEphB4-hsa. It has been tested in humans since 2011.

“Certain tumors respond,” Gill said, clinically.

In March 2019, Gill had one spot left in his clinical trial group for sEphB4-hsa.

What are the odds?

At Hoag Hospital, Dr. Jacob Thomas knew Deb McCartney was dying. He had told her that without any further treatment, her life expectancy was “a couple of months.” Nurse Cristina de Leon remembers seeing McCartney in March.

“She looked exhausted,” de Leon said. “It was like she had given up hope.”

Thomas called Gill, and McCartney got that last spot.

She started taking the test drug in April.

‘Gives me chills’


She wanted oatmeal. That was the first sign that something had gone right. Deb McCartney, who had once weighed 175 pounds and was down to 113, woke up on her sister’s couch/bed one morning last April, and she was hungry.

Dayna made her oatmeal with maple syrup and blueberries.

“Oh, it was good,” McCartney said.

On April 24, she went to Hoag for tests. Doctors said she had “thousands” of tumors in her body.

And they were shrinking.

Dr. Thomas thought, at first, she would have “modest success.” But the second scan showed more shrinkage than the first.

“We were looking at a rare, amazing response,” Thomas said. “It was the kind we don’t see enough.”

Thomas paused because he wanted to think of just the right words to describe what happened to Deb McCartney. He came up with four.

“Miraculous,” he said. “Oh, my gosh.”

In August, McCartney had another scan that showed her tumors were 80 percent smaller than they had been in April.

“It’s stunning,” Dr. Gill said. “It gives me chills. We’re talking about somebody at the end of their rope. It’s nothing short of a miracle. When thousands of tumors go away, it’s amazing.”

Looking forward

Today, Gill and Thomas are putting together a new study full of patients with the same cancer mutation they found in Deb McCartney.

“We’re learning from her,” Thomas said.

What happened to her may save many other lives.

“She is a pioneer,” Gill said. “We are taking a new approach in treating this particular mutation.”

And McCartney walked into Hoag Hospital last month with a job application. When you’re not dying, you need to get a job.

“Colors are brighter,” she said. “People are sweeter.”

Do you know what dying taught her?

“I don’t play computer games anymore,” she said. “Takes too much time.”

Here’s what survived her near-death experience: Movie night. That list of the last movies she wanted to see kept growing longer and longer. “French Kiss.” “Emma.” The list goes on an on. The sisters are literally writing down titles. It has turned into a weekly celebration.

Every Friday night, they order pizza. McCartney likes pepperoni, mushrooms and black olives.

They’re talking about another trip to Vegas. McCartney wants to go to brunch at the Bellagio.

When she’s there, she said she needs to stop by the roulette wheel.

“I’m very lucky,” McCartney said. “I’m living double zeros.”

Photo Credit: Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register

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