After an 18-month battle with a rare yet aggressive form of cancer, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford has died at 46.
The controversial politician succumbed to complications from a fast-growing cancerous abdominal tumour known as pleomorphic liposarcoma. He was diagnosed in September 2014.
For months, doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto fought the disease with aggressive radiation treatments and innovative targeted chemotherapies.
Here’s what Canadians need to know about Ford’s fight with cancer.
While running for re-election in the Toronto mayoral race, Ford announced he was diagnosed with a tumour in September 2014. After dealing with “unbearable” abdominal pain for months, a CT scan revealed the tumour, which triggered a series of MRIs and biopsies on the mass.
A week later, results revealed Ford had liposarcoma. He said he would undergo cycles of chemotherapy in an attempt to beat the disease.
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What is liposarcoma?
Liposarcoma is a rare type of cancer that begins in the fat cells. It’s in the soft tissues and can start in any part of the body – the tendons, nerves, blood vessels and muscles.
Sarcomas, in general, are rare and comprise only about one per cent of all cancers with 60 different cell types.
“They’re very rare cancers and few oncologists would ever see a case of this disease. You need to be treated by physicians, surgeons, oncologists and radiologists who have experience with the disease so they know the normal path and behaviour,” according to Bruce Shriver, who founded a global organization called the Liddy Shriver Sarcoma Initiative.
He formed the organization after his daughter, Liddy, lost her life to Ewing’s sarcoma at the age of 37.
Ford was treated by Dr. Zane Cohen, an internationally recognized colorectal surgeon and the doctor leading his care team at Mount Sinai.
He called Ford’s tumour “fairly aggressive.” It was about 12 centimetres by 12 centimetres, which explained Ford’s chronic discomfort. As the tumour expanded, Cohen said it could add pressure to his organs.
“That’s what makes it a very rare tumour and a very difficult tumour,” Cohen said. He couldn’t provide an estimate on the percentage of people with this cancer who survive five years, the standard benchmark for cancer survival.
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Colon, colorectal, and ovarian (for women) cancers tend to be far more common.
What was Ford’s treatment plan?
Because liposarcoma is so rare there is no conventional treatment program. In Ford’s case, he started by undergoing cycles of chemotherapy of about three days in hospital, followed by 17 days of rest.
After months of aggressive radiation treatments turned out to be ineffective, the Mount Sinai team chose to combat the cancer with surgery and an innovative targeted chemotherapy known as the Panov Program.
It’s an experimental treatment that aims to transfer some of the trial and error of cancer treatment to lab animals.
The concept is simple: implant pieces of the patient’s tumour in lab mice, wait for them to grow, give the mice different treatments, and only then decide on the best treatment for the person.
Mount Sinai’s trial, the Panov Program, is named after Yaron Panov, a Thornhill man who credits it with reversing a cancer that doctors called untreatable.
Panov’s cancer was similar to Ford’s. Told he had no hope of recovery when he was diagnosed at 55, he went to the United States to try precision chemotherapy. Tests on mice suggested doctors use a drug designed for colon cancer, which was a complete success. Panov is now healthy.
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The medical community doesn’t know what causes sarcomas and there’s no rhyme nor reason when it surfaces.
With files from Adam Miller, Global News