By Emily Williams
When asked to speak about her appreciation for the Robert E. Reed Gastrointestinal Oncology Research Foundation and the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, Molly Miller’s first response is, “Wayne would be so good at this.
“The thing about Wayne – his personality was like a light,” Miller said. “He was always able to see things in such a great way and he was able to take his experience and make it uplifting.”
Miller’s husband, Wayne, who lost his battle with colon cancer in January, shared what he learned through his battle with cancer as one of the foundation’s Faces of GI Cancer in 2016.
Wayne appreciated being able to share his own experience battling cancer, a battle that lasted just more than five years, and was able to use his story to advocate for the foundation and its mission to support GI cancer research at UAB through its annual Finish the Fight event.
It’s a legacy that Miller has made an effort to continue through her support of this year’s event, set for Nov. 15 at The Club.
By supporting the Robert E. Reed Foundation, Miller said, she and her family are investing in the research the foundation funds at UAB to find those new treatments that may help give another patient more time with their family.
“After you lose someone, you just want the next person to have it better,” she said. “You want that next family not to lose a loved one.”
With very little of the program’s budget accounted for by government funding, sometimes the only funding UAB has for its young investigators and GI cancer research comes from donations, including those from the Robert E. Reed Foundation, said Dr. Martin Heslin, who serves on the foundation’s board in addition to being director of UAB’s gastrointestinal oncology clinic.
“We’re on the forefront of (a) precipice in medicine in which I think the future will be both in stimulating the immune system in order to fight cancer inside the body and better understanding the genetic makeup of these tumors so we’re more precise in our treatment,” Heslin said.
To reach that goal, it will take “flipping the paradigm,” as Heslin describes it. First finding the best treatment for each type of cancer; then breaking those types down into subsections and beginning to treat them on a genetic level.
Currently, the foundation is helping fund three research projects to better understand neuroendocrine tumors of the pancreas – a form of pancreatic cancer that is less common and requires a complex process of treatment; research on colorectal cancers; and a study on diet and nutrition and how it affects the outcome of GI cancer treatment.
“Especially with upper GI cancers … weight loss is one of the main side effects and, with that level of weight loss, it compromises people’s ability to undergo certain treatments,” Heslin said, which in turn increases the probability that the cancer will spread.
The Millers were introduced to the Robert E. Reed Foundation by Heslin, one of the doctors who treated Wayne.
Wayne was diagnosed in about October 2012, at the age of 45, after experiencing abdominal pains and undergoing a colonoscopy. After visiting an oncologist, Wayne was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer that had spread to his liver.
“This was really our first experience at UAB,” Miller said. “I was blown away by the level of empathy. There was that same level of empathy in all of the doctors we met.”
One of those doctors was Heslin, who met with the couple once Wayne had finished chemotherapy treatment.
One of the things Miller grew to understand about cancer was that, even when the prognosis is bad, a person can continue to live with cancer. Having hope is one of the keys to doing that successfully, she added.
“Dr. Heslin was so great at giving Wayne so much hope,” she said. “He really found his life’s work, because every time Wayne left an appointment, he was hopeful.”
According to Heslin, being able to boost morale and help keep patients and their family’s spirits up is an important aspect of treatment. It’s just another way to enhance their quality of life.
It’s all about finding a balance, Heslin said. As a doctor, he works to find that balance between working to cure someone’s cancer and maintaining their quality of life.
There are three aspects to treating a patient: curing their cancer, helping them live longer and helping them live better. If he finds that they don’t have that perfect treatment yet that will lead to that patient’s cure, it becomes about helping them live longer and better.
“I always start with the live better part. … Because if you make someone live longer and it reaches the point where they have almost no quality of life, then there is a question of whether or not it was worth it,” he said.
In Wayne’s case, Heslin said, because his cancer was so advanced, finding a cure wasn’t a clear reality, but what was a reality for the Millers were their two young children.
“People like that want to buy as much quality time as they can,” Heslin said. “So, they are willing to put up with more side effects than others in order to get that time.”
That’s when it becomes even more important for patients to be hopeful. For Heslin, it takes being upfront – nobody can escape death – while reminding patients that he and his team are always looking for that new treatment that will help get them to that next birthday.
“Wayne was really good about that,” Heslin said, adding that Wayne was very upfront and clear in accepting the fact that nobody can escape death, but always looking toward that next treatment.
It’s a message that Wayne conveyed very clearly in the video profile the foundation made for the 2016 Faces of GI Cancer:
“To me, every day is just another day to just get up and fight the battle just a little bit more; to live for another day and then to live through another treatment and then live through another week and then another month … And eventually they might just come up with a cure for this thing,” he said.
Heslin said he’s always in awe of those videos and the strength of those patients that share their stories.
“These are people that I have, I say, invested in,” Heslin said. “I take care of these people and I really get fairly involved in my patient’s lives and their challenges and we really work hard in my office. We work really, really hard to make sure our patients are cared for to a really high standard.”
Being able to watch his patients live their lives and experience such accomplishments, Heslin said, is a privilege that makes him incredibly grateful.
For more information on the Finish the Fight event, visit reedgifoundation.com.