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The Human Face Of Pharma

June 19, 2006

Side Effects Stink

Teen cancer patient hopes targeted therapy will reduce the havoc caused by chemotherapy

Rachel Petkewich

Courtesy of Amanda Pollak

Amanda Pollak

Amanda Pollak adores sports. As an eighth grader, she could run a mile in close to six minutes and played soccer in Montgomery County, Md. She and her avid younger brother even bestowed their soccer passion upon their cats, naming them Fifa (after the international soccer governing body) and Ole (referring to the soccer chant). On Oct. 13, 2003, when Pollak was two months away from her provisional black belt in karate, doctors diagnosed her with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Sports and school fell to the wayside as chemotherapy took over her life. Two months after her diagnosis, Pollak also had a severe stroke in her left brain. With the fortunate exception of her right eyelid, her entire right side froze, paralyzed. Injections of PEG asparaginase, part of her cancer treatment, caused the three blood clots that brought about the stroke.

After a lot of hard work, Pollak, now a 15-year-old high school student, is on the road back to sports and a healthy life. The only sign of the stroke is a slight hand tremor when she is tired. She faced her last chemo treatment on Feb. 14. Being bald "bit," she says, but not being able to relate to school friends was worse.

"They were more normal, hormone-raging teens, and because of the steroidal components of my treatment, I was like their postmenopausal friend," Pollak explains. "They focused on things that I couldn't relate to, while I would be thinking about how much I wished I was well or how to get through the school day without throwing up." She found people who could relate to her on Group Loop, an online support system for teens with cancer and their families. A nonprofit organization called The Wellness Community runs that site.

Like many cancer patients, Pollak experienced many nerve-wracking moments from the unexpected, negative side effects of chemotherapy. "Patients have to wait and wonder whether the newest problem is a relapse—one of the worst possible things that can happen—or just another side effect of chemotherapy," she explains.

Reflecting on her experiences, Pollak provides a few recommendations for improving cancer treatments: Don't bother "finding the cure" for what seems to be a genetic disease, but look for earlier, more accurate ways to diagnose cancer and reduce the side effects associated with treatment.

"It seems to me that most cancers, if diagnosed properly and caught early, can be treated and fixed by chemotherapy or radiation," Pollak says. She points out that those treatments virtually eliminate the immune system, leaving a patient defenseless against many additional maladies that threaten survival. Experimental, targeted therapies, she learned from her doctors, could zero in on the specific kind of cell that has an increased growth rate without ravaging the rest of the body. To her, that option sounds much better.

Pollak kept her own illness in perspective "All along, I knew there were people much worse off than me," she says, with regard to her access to health care and in relation to morbidity and mortality around the world. Cancer itself is a noncommunicable disease, she notes. "I think that the treatments we have cannot be improved upon nearly as much as medications for HIV, malaria, and other communicable diseases."

C&EN SPECIAL ISSUE: Pharma's Road Ahead

Cover Page Thumbnail
Pharma's Road Ahead
Volume 84, Issue 25
June 19, 2006
Table Of Contents
Web Feature: The Human Face of Pharma

Seventeen individuals whose lives depend on, or whose livelihoods are affected by, the pharmaceutical industry offer unique perspectives on what pharma's future should be.