Former Capital News photographer Sean Conner (right)

Ground-breaking B.C. research giving hope to cancer patients

Funded by the B.C. Cancer Foundation, the Personalized Onco-Genomic program, being conducted in B.C., is being watched closely.

They are the three words none of us want to hear: You have cancer.

But in July 2011, that’s what Sean Connor was told by his doctors.

Connor, an award-winning photographer with the Kelowna Capital News at the time, had a large tumour in his head that had wrapped itself around bone and was pressing on his optic nerve giving him double-vision.

Surgery could remove some of the tumour, but not all of it. The prognosis was that, even with surgery, his cancer would likely return in five to seven years time.

“I did what most people would do,” said Connor. “I raced to my computer and Googled chordoma tumour and learned I had about five years.”

But Connor, and his wife Sandra, were determined he would beat the odds.

Opting for surgery and then a harrowing two-month course of radiation at a southern California university hospital that specialized in his type of cancer, Connor embarked on a medical journey that would see him undergo several more surgeries as the tumour, and the efforts to rid his body of it, created further medical complications.

Then, earlier this year, he was told about a new, ground-breaking research program taking place in B.C., including here in Kelowna, that appeared to give hope to some cancer patients with advanced and rare cancers.

The B.C. Cancer Agency’s Personalized Onco-Genomics Program, known as POG, analyses the DNA of cancer patients, the DNA of their cancers and looks for the differences. It then matches those up with drugs doctors know can work on specific cells found in those differences.

Of the first 78 patients in the research study’s initial 100-patient intake, 14 have experienced what Robyn Roscoe, director of management and administration for the B.C. Cancer Agency’s Genome Science Centre in Vancouver, called a “positive impact.”

“That’s 14 people who were able to say, ‘I’m still here,’” she told a fundraising lunch put on by the B.C. Cancer Foundation in Kelowna on Tuesday.

The POG program, which is only in this province, is totally funded by the B.C. Cancer Foundation and is being watched closely by cancer agencies around the world as a possible breakthrough in the treatment of the disease.

Connor, who also spoke at the lunch, said when he heard about the POG program—which only takes patients with rare forms of cancer and ones whose cancer has metastasized to other parts of the body—he knew he wanted to be part of it.

He said he believes the science behind POG will one day revolutionize cancer care.

“Thank you for giving me hope,” said Connor, his speech slurred by the effects of the tumour and the radiation he endured.

He said he has yet to hear his results but is thankful for at least getting a chance to be part of the program.

The POG program has been running in B.C. for the last three years and has now seen a total of 398 patients participate.

The initial patient intake of 100 was followed up by a second intake of 298, with results from the second intake still to come.

For Connor, who has undergone several surgeries in his fight against the disease, including one to restore his sight and others to repair or remove kidney and other organs affected by the tumour and radiation, the POG program is offering him hope he said he didn’t have before.

In his remarks, he thanked his doctors, the medical community here, in Vancouver and in southern California and especially his wife, who he said has “cried too many tears over this cancer,” but remains his rock and his medical advocate.

“I could not have done it without her,” he said.

The B.C. Cancer Foundation lunch, the fifth annual in its Discovery series, has raised more than $300,000 since 2011 for a number of B.C. programs aimed at fighting cancer.

Also speaking at the lunch was local philanthropist Tom Budd, whose Thomas Alan Budd Foundation has given thousands of dollars to the B.C. Cancer Foundation in its role as the matching donor for foundation fundraising.

At the lunch on Tuesday, Budd said he would match $6,000 raised by the Sentes Auto Group for the foundation and also announced he was signing on for another three years as the foundation’s matching sponsor.