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Metastatic Cancer Patient Moves to California for Clinical Trial

"I chose Hoag because of the excellence of care and the commitment to healing."

Deborah Colleen McCartney left her job at a hospital in Colorado to become a patient at Hoag.

“The excellence of care,” Deborah says, when asked why she made such an enormous lifestyle change – selling her home and moving to her sister’s couch just so she could receive treatments for her stage 4 lung cancer at Hoag Family Cancer Institute. “I chose Hoag because of the excellence of care and the commitment to healing.”

Deborah, who recently turned 61, was born at Hoag and grew up next door to John Wayne. Watching the famous actor go through his cancer, and following closely the commitment his and many other families have made to Hoag over the years, Deborah knew Hoag was the right choice to aggressively, thoroughly and compassionately treat her advanced lung cancer.

“Just watching over the years, what Hoag has grown into is amazing,” she said. “They offer clinical trials that are such a great opportunity to help patients. When you have cancer, you have to move on it because cancer is so vicious. At Hoag, you have so many options, and they don’t stop. They’re aggressive fighters, and they’re in your corner.”

Deborah has a lung cancer with a rare mutation. The cancer has been very aggressive, spreading to her brain, both lungs, and lymph nodes throughout the body.

Oncologist George Semeniuk, M.D., treated her with chemotherapy until her tumor was small enough for Daryl Pearlstein, M.D., to remove it surgically. Her cancer persisted, however, and Dr. Semeniuk placed her on a clinical trial. After six months, the drug stopped working.

Deborah says that because the physicians and specialists all speak to one another and confer about patient care, Dr. Semeniuk knew to send her immediately to Hoag's Phase 1 clinical trils program, for a new clinical trial that’s only available at Hoag and USC.

Deborah became one of only twelve advanced lung cancer patients in the world to receive this life-saving clinical trial.

“Hoag is heading a clinical trial that is aggressive for this form of lung cancer. The results have been outstanding. Some of my tumors have disappeared completely and the ones remaining have been reduced in size by 60% - its truly remarkable!”

This phase 1 clinical trial is for a drug called sEphB4-HSA, developed by Dr. Parkash Gill at USC, and is given in combination with a standard chemotherapy called docetaxel. The treatment is exclusive to Hoag and USC, thanks to the alliance established between Hoag Family Cancer Institute and USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“I am so grateful for this clinical trial,” she says. “If it had been 5 years ago, I would have been a goner.”

Deborah is still receiving treatments for the cancer in her lungs, bones and lymph nodes. Her brain cancer, however, is completely healed.

“When I was told I have brain cancer, I talked to Dr. Duma who said, ‘Let’s get rid of this brain cancer immediately,’” she says.

Christopher Duma, M.D., F.A.C.S. is one of the most experienced neurosurgeon specialists in the field of Gamma Knife​ radiosurgery and brain tumor surgery in the nation. Hoag being a community hospital, Dr. Duma is also something of a family friend: Deborah’s brother-in-law built his home.

“Dr. Duma is my hero,” Deborah says. “His whole team is awesome.”

Deborah doesn’t believe she will ever be entirely rid of cancer, but she feels confident that her team at Hoag is giving her the very best, not only in terms of treatment options but emotional support, too.

Between Hoag’s nurse navigator program, pain management, image enhancement services and other support services at Hoag Family Cancer Institute, Deborah receives more care than she could have imagined.

“Even the volunteers at the infusion center who bring you treats, everyone is just so awesome,” Deborah says. “I have been blessed with good doctors and surround myself with positive people.”

Two of those people are Deborah’s sister Dayna and brother-in-law Lee Pinney, on whose couch she has been staying while undergoing treatments. Checking off an important box on her “bucket list,” Deborah recently took Dayna on a cruise in Hawaii. And for Deborah’s recent 61st birthday, Dayna took Deborah to Las Vegas.

“We did not think I would make it to this birthday,” she says. “Dayna cried and wrote me the most beautiful birthday card.

“It’s amazing,” she says. “It looks like I’m on my way to being healthier.”