Originally published by Canexia Health
COVID-19 has created serious challenges for people living with advanced-stage cancer. In response, Canexia Health launched Project ACTT this summer, a federally-funded program to provide liquid biopsy testing to 2,000 patients across Canada with advanced or metastatic breast, lung, and colorectal cancer. More than 500 patients to date have participated in the program, which is mitigating the risk of COVID-19 exposure while ensuring access to targeted treatment selection despite tissue biopsy delays. This is one patient’s story.
Carla Van Wyck-MacDonald lives near Shallow Lake, Ontario with her husband and their four children, ages 9, 11, 13 and 14. Carla was initially diagnosed with breast cancer two years after her mother died from the same disease.
“I’ve always been an active person, but over the last 3 years, my quality of life has really diminished,” she explained recently.
Her cancer had progressed to an advanced stage, chemotherapy caused multiple complications, and she was losing hope.
“I made a promise to be here as long as possible to raise my kids. So, I kept praying and pushing my doctors for other options. What can we do to prolong my life, what else can I try?”
Her persistence paid off when she received a call from Dr. Phillipe Bedard at The Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, University Hospital Network, in Toronto.
“He asked me a few questions. Have you ever had a blood test to see what clinical trials you might qualify for? I knew about genetic factors, because of my mother, as well as my grandmother, and my own susceptibility. But no one had offered this particular test to me before.”
The test Carla is referring to is called liquid biopsy. Requiring only a simple blood draw, the test searches for fragments of tumour DNA, known as genetic biomarkers, circulating in a patient’s bloodstream. Once identified, these genetic biomarkers may be used to establish a patient’s clinical situation, and facilitate, where appropriate, identification of targeted treatment.
“With COVID-19, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make any progress. It’s not just the surgery backlogs that have been an issue. For those of us who live far away from the city, we don’t even have a place to stay overnight for appointments because they’ve shut everything.”
COVID-19 has had major impacts on cancer care throughout Canada, particularly for those in rural and remote areas.
“Carla’s story illustrates how it’s helpful to have a blood test available that can be collected close to a patient’s home. She lives 3 hours away from Toronto,” said Dr. Bedard. “She was able to go to her local LifeLabs for the blood draw, and then we met virtually to discuss her results. The Canexia Health test revealed a mutation known as PIK3CA, which led us to enroll her in clinical trials for two targeted drugs.”
Dr. Bedard added, “Carla is only in her second month in these trials, but she would not have otherwise had access to this treatment without the liquid biopsy test. It’s particularly helpful for patients who live outside of urban areas and who may not have access to specialized testing in academic research hospitals.”
“Right now, this treatment is turning my situation around,” Carla said. “I’m sure there are many other people who would benefit from this. It shouldn’t be a matter of luck to have access to this testing.”