I hit the lottery!! Not really, but it certainly seems so when I consider the odds against my having the special mutation which allows me to take a pill instead of chemotherapy.
The mutation is known as EGFR, an acronym which stands for Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor. The way it works, at least with my limited understanding, is this:
Cancer cells secrete a chemical, epidermal growth factor, which stimulates nearby cancer cells to grow and reproduce. This uncontrolled growth makes cancer cells “immortal.” My mutation allows the pill’s active ingredient to bind to the receptors on these cells preventing them from sending their signals to grow and reproduce. As a result, the cancer cells will now die like normal cells do. The end product of all this activity should be the cancer tumors decreasing in size. Let’s hope it works.
The frequency of this mutation in the Caucasian population is approximately 10%, certainly a small number. This is why I feel that I have hit the lottery.
The pill that I am taking is Tarceva, the brand name for Erlotinib — this is the chemical which binds to the cancer cell receptors. As I read in some of the literature on this pill, it has been shown in trials to increase life expectancy by 2-3 months, at a cost of $95,000 (thank goodness for insurance) — no wonder health care costs are so high! When I think of the money, I cringe a bit but how much money is 3 additional months of life worth to a terminally ill cancer patient — priceless! Actually, recent trials indicate that the benefit in time may be more like years instead of months — Hooray!