Later this month, Langley’s Zuri Scrivens will share her breast cancer journey with a nationwide audience.
Mom to a six-year-old son, Scrivens allowed a camera crew to film a ‘day-in-the-life,’ piece on her and her family, as part of a new documentary, Cracking Cancer, that premiers Feb. 23 on CBC’s flagship science program, The Nature of Things.
“This is my second cancer-related documentary,” Scrivens said. “The first one I was in, was for an incredibly valuable organization called Callanish, and they did one about young cancer survivors who have been given very grim prognosis and have basically beaten the odds.”
This time around, Scrivens said crews filmed her taking her son, Michael, to school, and tagged along with her and her husband when they went on a hike, among other everyday activities.
Narrated and hosted by David Suzuki, Cracking Cancer joins patients on the “rollercoaster ride that is cancer,” says director Judith Pyke.
“With people like Zuri, we witness elation, while others confront crushing disappointment,” Pyke said. “It was a year of intimacy and honesty I will never forget.”
At 33, Scrivens discovered she had breast cancer. She endured a mastectomy, radiation, chemotherapy and hormone therapy.
Within 18 months, her cancer was back — and had spread to her liver and lymph nodes.
Her disease now considered incurable, Scrivens faced the very real prospect of not seeing her son grow up.
That was five years ago.
Today, she has no signs of cancer, and credits a new cancer drug which also treats diabetes.
It’s called POG — Personalized OncoGenomics — and is the focus of Cracking Cancer, which follows a group of patients, all with incurable cancer, through a highly experimental clinical trial at the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver.
When POG launched in 2012, there were only 30 cancer patients in the trial. But initial results were so promising it has expanded to take in 750 patients to date. It’s aiming to enrol 5,000 patients.
Scrivens began her trial run using the drug in January 2013, following her second cancer diagnosis.
Vancouver oncologist, Dr. Karen Gelmon, “was the one who got me onto the POG trial,” Scrivens said.
“It’s the exact same pill a diabetic takes. My parents have both taken it because they’re both diabetics.”
Scrivens agreed to be part of the documentary because she wanted to give others hope for their future.
“The hope is the more patients you can bring into the program and test and compare, the better. My outcome has shown that anything is possible,” Scrivens said.
She added, “So many people hear ‘cancer,’ and their immediate thought is to go to a very dark place of death and dying, because that’s what we see. That’s the image we are given. This is important because it gives an option.”
Whether it means your life is going to be extended five, 10, or even 50 years, Scrivens said, “it’s still better than a doctor saying to you, ‘I can’t really do much for you.’”
Dr. Janessa Laskin, the co-founder of the trial, said, “We’re trying to find what’s driving that cancer. And then, can we identify a drug that will block the cancer driver in each patient? Zuri’s cancer driver was a mutation that caused a very high growth factor.”
Laskin said the POG team painstakingly plowed through decades’ worth of scientific discovery, to isolate which drug in all of medicine, not just cancer, might block that growth factor. They zeroed in on a diabetes medication.
Scrivens received the drug, and continued standard hormone treatment.
“I don’t know a lot about the other cancers but with breast cancer in particular, when it spreads, most people don’t really know much about what their options are, but they have an option to at least try something,” Scrivens said.
Started with a lump
Scrivens said there were no visible symptoms leading up to the cancer diagnosis in July 2011, “other than feeling a lump in my right breast.”
At the time, she was nursing her then 10-month-old son.
“I felt fine otherwise,” Scrivens said.
Scrivens’ tumour had to be treated aggressively.
“It was incredibly frightening,” she recalled. “You’re still fresh as a parent and adjusting to that change in your life and then suddenly, breast cancer, and now you’re thinking about life or death and all of the things you never thought you’d be thinking about, at least not for many, many decades.”
She underwent a right-sided mastectomy and after the surgery, went for fertility treatment, chemotherapy, and radiation, and went onto one-a-day pill hormone therapy.
In October 2012, with the hope of eradicating the cancer completely, she underwent a left-sided mastectomy.
“But then I got diagnosed again, anyway, a month later,” Scrivens said. “It (the cancer) had spread to my liver and my lymph nodes, and so that’s when I saw Dr. Gelmon. That was the scarier time.”
Cancer is a trauma, Scrivens said. “It takes time to get through that. I’m grateful to be here, I can go for a run anytime, go for a bike ride anytime. I feel more than lucky… more than lucky.”
Scrivens said she was fortunate to meet Gelmon. “My uncle is a general surgeon and he knows her through his work, and he was able to get me in to see her. Since then I’ve realized she is actually quite willing to see anybody. She takes her work with men and women with breast cancer very seriously. She is an incredible oncologist.”