Every other Tuesday, Gail Stover makes the 300-mile trip from his home in Missouri to receive cancer treatment at the Stephenson Cancer Center in Oklahoma City. On Wednesday, he hops back into the car to return home.
Last year, the biweekly trips added up to more than 25,000 miles. But Stover would drive another 25,000 miles if he had to.
“It’s real simple: The doctors gave me three months to live. Now I drive down here once a week and they gave me back my life,” Stover said.
Stover battles a rare and aggressive form of cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma. He is a participant in the Oklahoma TSET Phase I Clinical Trials Program at the Stephenson Cancer Center in Oklahoma City. The trial provides an opportunity for cancer patients to access the most advanced targeted therapies by participating in early drug trials, giving patients access to a new generation of personalized and targeted therapies to help researchers determine their effectiveness and safety.
“A phase I trial did not scare me. I get the newest, the best care,” he said, adding that cancer treatment has come a long way, and raising the standard of care should be a goal.
The Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) and the Stephenson Cancer Center are close partners in a shared mission of reducing the burden of cancer for Oklahoma, said Dr. Robert Mannel, director of the Stephenson Cancer Center.
“The Oklahoma TSET Phase I Program has served over 1,000 cancer patients from nearly every Oklahoma county and eight other states,” Mannel said. “We look forward to continuing the fight against cancer through advancing drug development research and providing world-class patient care with partners like TSET by our side.”
TSET was created by voters in 2000, has been a major funder of research at Stephenson Cancer Center since 2012. TSET grants and programs to improve health are funded by the earnings from the investment of the majority of the annual payment to the state of Oklahoma as part of the national Master Settlement Agreement with the tobacco industry.
Programs such as the Oklahoma TSET Phase I Program are vital. In 2016, an estimated 19,280 Oklahomans developed cancer, and 8,100 died from their disease – making Oklahoma the state with the fifth-highest cancer mortality rate among all states. And those Oklahomans who overcome their disease will join the state’s estimated 172,000 cancer survivors who cope with the long-term physical and psychological effects of their diagnosis and treatment.
This year, the Stephenson Cancer Center is expected to apply for the prestigious National Cancer Institute designation, which will open up additional funding for research and improve outcomes for patients.
By offering access to the newest early-phase cancer drugs, the Stephenson Cancer Center has a direct impact on raising the standard of cancer care in the state.
“To get these advanced therapies in the past, you’d have to travel far. Now Oklahomans can get the most advanced treatment close to home,” Mannel said.
With the support from TSET, Stephenson Cancer Center has also leveraged a major increase in the amount of cancer research funding coming to Oklahoma from national sponsors such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), American Cancer Society, and National Science Foundation, ensuring that groundbreaking cancer research will continue to come from Oklahoma. TSET’s partnership with Stephenson Cancer Center began was established in 2012 and funded with a five-year, $30 million grant.
“A highlight of this partnership is the creation of the state’s only early-phase clinical trials program, which provides access to the latest, most advanced precision medicine-based cancer therapies,” Mannel said.
Research and clinical trial programs, like the one Stover is involved in, are key to securing the NCI designation, Mannel said.
Stover’s cancer journey began in 2012 when he found a lump in a lymph node and was diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma that usually appears as a flesh-colored or bluish-red nodule on the skin.
In Stover’s case, the tumors developed inward. Merkel cell carcinoma also tends to grow fast and spreads quickly to other parts of the body. After other treatment options failed, Stover began investigating clinical trials. He found some dealing with his form of cancer, but they were in Washington, Florida or Massachusetts, thousands of miles away from his home. There was even one in Australia.
Then he found the Oklahoma TSET Phase I Program – it had opened up only two days earlier. A 300-mile journey did not sound so bad.
“It’s rare to have this kind of resource in your region,” he said.
Stover visited Stephenson Cancer Center in January 2016, was accepted into the trial and began treatment soon after.
“By April there was a 15 percent reduction in tumor sizes. In June, when I did the next scan, they were all gone,” he said.
Stover is now part of a 9 year study, and is entering year 2.
“I am just tickled to death it is working,” he said.
Considering that Stover spends 600 miles roudtrip traveling to Oklahoma while going through cancer treatment, he seems remarkably well. There is only one thing that slows him down – a little.
“We like to go cowboy dancing. The cancer ate part of the bone. Sometimes my knee catches and it makes me look like I am stumbling out there,” he said with a big smile.
TSET also has research grants to the Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research and the Oklahoma Tobacco Research Center.