In September 2015, Earl Groce’s cross country trip to the Burning Man festival in Nevada was coming to an end. Midway through his trip, the power steering in his camper failed and made the drive back to North Carolina much more difficult. As a result, he was having pain and worried he may have a herniated belly button. Earl decided to seek his physician’s medical advice.
After a physical examination, CT scan and a biopsy, Earl’s doctor confirmed the worst. What Earl thought was a sign of a herniated belly button was actually a Sister Mary Joseph nodule, which is a palpable nodule protruding from the belly button that indicates cancer in the abdomen or pelvis. Earl had stage IV pancreatic cancer that had metastasized to his lungs, liver and peritoneum.
Left speechless, Earl had his physician relay the message via phone to his eldest daughter, a surgical oncologist in Canada. She immediately began searching for hospitals and physicians in North Carolina with expertise in treating pancreatic cancer.
That research led Earl and his daughter to Wake Forest Baptist Health’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the Piedmont Triad region and one of only 51 in the country. Studies show that patients who receive care at an NCI-designated cancer center can improve their long-term survival rates by up to 25%.
Upon coming to the Comprehensive Cancer Center, Earl was offered treatment options that included a phase I clinical trial for CPI-613, a targeted therapy aimed at cancer cell metabolism. Patients enrolled receive the test drug, CPI-613, in addition to FOLFIRINOX, a combination of chemotherapeutic agents.
“Pancreatic cancer is very aggressive, and patients who present with the cancer at an early stage are a minority,” says Dr. George Yacoub, medical oncologist and Earl’s primary oncologist at Wake Forest Baptist. “Those with early stage pancreatic cancer can undergo surgery to remove the tumor, but for patients like Earl, who presented with advanced Stage IV pancreatic cancer, an operation was not in the picture. Patients with Stage IV pancreatic cancer typically only have a five-year survival rate of 3%. Clinical trials are encouraged to see if a new treatment is more helpful than the standard of care regime.”
Earl decided that the clinical trial was the best option for him. Today, four and a half years later, he continues to do remarkably well, with his CT and MRI results continuing to remain stable. Beyond surviving, Earl says he is thriving and has maintained a great quality of life during his personalized cancer treatment. He has been able to do what he loves most—travel with his family. He credits his successful cancer journey to the clinical trial and his compassionate cancer care team.
“The cancer care team at Wake Forest Baptist are all wonderful folks who do the most serious work, but they are always careful, kind and professional,” Earl says.
Due to COVID-19, Earl remains in close contact with Dr. Yacoub about his treatment plan.
“For most patients undergoing cancer treatment, the risk from not treating the cancer tends to be higher than the risk of COVID-19,” says Dr. Yacoub, who notes that, for now, Earl’s treatment plan has not been affected. “Delaying treatment can change a patient’s prognosis and even life expectancy.”
To help those who are older and immunocompromised, Earl urges the community to take social distancing and stay-at-home orders seriously, to only go out when necessary and to wear a mask when out in public.
Even with the added stress, Earl remains positive and keeps busy advocating for pancreatic cancer clinical trials and sharing his journey through his blog that can be found at CPI613.com. He looks forward to the day when COVID-19 is no longer a threat and he can resume traveling with his family.