When Danny Martin was diagnosed with Stage 4 bladder cancer in 2016, his chances of survival were slim. The cancer had spread to his lungs and doctors suggested he get his affairs in order.
“I started thinking, ‘I’m not going to see my kids get married,’” says the Pender Island father. “That gave me a lot of resolve to take this one on.”
The “this” Martin speaks of was a life-changing invitation to participate in a clinical trial at BC Cancer – Vancouver.
Clinical trials test a new treatment to determine its effectiveness. Patients are typically assigned to a group receiving standard care or one receiving the new therapy. Over the past year, more than 120 clinical trials took place at BC Cancer.
“To me, clinical trial participants are the heroes of medicine because without them, we couldn’t improve on what we have.”
“Clinical trials are extremely important because they’re the only way that we can move healthcare forward,” says Dr. Bernie Eigl, the provincial director of clinical trials and an oncologist at BC Cancer.
“We’re very lucky in B.C. that our standards in cancer care are among the best in the world, but I also want to be able to offer other options, and that’s where clinical trials come in.”
Martin travelled to Vancouver, where he met with Eigl to determine if he met the trial criteria and to go over potential risks and benefits.
“Taking part in a clinical trial could help someone, hurt someone or make no difference at all,” Eigl says.
“Obviously the hope is that we’re always moving things in the right direction and helping people. To me, clinical trial participants are the heroes of medicine because without them, we couldn’t improve on what we have.”
Martin was excited to join the trial—he figured it was his only chance at getting well and that it could help other people with bladder cancer in the future. He was also struck by the compassion and professionalism of Eigl and his colleagues.
“They presented volumes of information for me to understand what was entailed,” Martin says. “Every question was answered. Every test was done. I knew I was in very good hands.”
Clinical trials are particularly important for diseases that are difficult to treat like bladder cancer. People with advanced bladder cancer have a life expectancy of only eight months (15 months with chemotherapy) and there have been very few advances in treatment for the disease until recently.
The international trial Martin is taking part in involves immunotherapy, which is a treatment that encourages the immune system to attack tumors. It works in about 20 per cent of cases, Eigl explains.
“We’re grateful to our donors because we couldn’t do any of this without them, and we’re also grateful to those who give their time and themselves to take part in this,” Eigl says.
The study aims to increase its efficacy by using personalized medicine, a model that tailors treatment to the individual based on their predicted response.
The researchers are looking at the genetic makeup of a person’s cancer and trying to determine which genes are driving the disease.
They’ve discovered that a specific gene mutation is responsible for 20 per cent of bladder cancers, and a drug can stop these genes from mutating, halting the production of cancer.
“When it works, it’s phenomenal,” says Eigl. And it worked for Martin. Within about a month, his cancer was in remission.
“Danny probably had a number of months when he started this and now he’s free of disease. I do believe that what he took part in is going to change the way we treat bladder cancer for generations to come. It’s just awe-inspiring.”
However, trials like this are expensive and donations to the BC Cancer Foundation are vital.
“We’re grateful to our donors because we couldn’t do any of this without them, and we’re also grateful to those who give their time and themselves to take part in this,” Eigl says. “It’s having a real impact. You can see that from guys like Danny.”
Today, Martin is still going to Vancouver for monthly checkups. He just had his 25th treatment and celebrated his 68th birthday.
For more than 50 years, he’s been coaching little league baseball and is thrilled to be able to continue. He also treasures the time he has with his 96-year-old mother and his children.
“It’s just unbelievable. Sometimes I drive across the island and I have to pull over, and I just start bawling in the front seat because I’m overwhelmed by how lucky I got,” he says with tears in his eyes.
“I’m a better person for being sick. I laugh more. I care more. I know what’s more important. I don’t get cheated out of a day.”
Learn more about how you can support the advancement of cancer research and care for the people of B.C. here.