After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013, Durangoan Tom Riesing has beaten the odds for survival by seeking out a blend of effective nontraditional treatments.
Only 9% of pancreatic cancer patients survive more than five years after their diagnosis, according to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. To be among that small group, Riesing, the founder of Oakhaven Permaculture Center, has navigated financial strain, medications that caused severe side effects and a doctor who advised him to give up and go into hospice care, among other challenges.
“If you don’t advocate for yourself and have someone along with you, medicine can fail you,” said Mindy Iris, Riesing’s wife.
Riesing, 81, was fortunate and caught his pancreatic tumor early. He had the tumor removed in 2014 and went into remission for several years before his cancer returned in 2017. He is now battling cancer in his lungs and in the tissue that holds his internal organs together.
He credits a combination of low-dose chemotherapy, intravenous vitamin C and hyperthermia treatments, which help ensure his medications reach his tumors, with keeping him alive. It’s a journey the couple wrote about in a piece for Durango publication E.P.I.C. Magazine and hope to chronicle in a book.
“We both mutually keep having some drive to go beyond just what’s comfortable,” Iris said.
The couple moved to Washington this fall for seven to eight months to be close to Riesing’s hyperthermia treatments and oncologist, Dr. Nick Chen at the Seattle Integrative Cancer Center. Chen developed a nontraditional combination of vitamin C infusions and lower doses of chemotherapy.
Through the treatment, the center’s stage 4 pancreatic patients are surviving between two to seven years, Chen said.
When vitamin C is introduced into a patient’s blood, the cancer cells create hydrogen peroxide, which is toxic to the cells and makes them more sensitive to radiation and chemotherapy, researchers at the University of Iowa found.
Combining chemotherapy and vitamin C treatment also helps keep the immune systems of patients more intact, Chen said.
Across the U.S., high-dose vitamin C treatment has been slow to catch on, in part because it can’t be patented, so it does not appeal to pharmaceutical companies, he said.
But Chen is hopeful it will gain more attention after researchers at the University of Iowa and Columbia University finish studies about intravenous vitamin C, he said.
Riesing also undergoes localized hyperthermia treatments at the Integrated Health Clinic in Fort Langley, British Columbia, Canada, to open up the blood vessels leading to his tumors to bring more chemotherapy medications to them, said Dr. Gurdev Parmar. The heat also damages the cancer cells while sparing healthy ones, he said.
The treatment helps to increase the survival time of patients with the 10 most commonly treated solid tumors, such as pancreatic, breast, lung and brain cancers, according to data the clinic has collected since 2010, Parmar said, in an email. Parmar and Chen also frequently work with the same patients, he said.
The treatments have held Riesing’s cancer at bay, but he has faced setbacks and severe side effects from some medications, he said.
Last year, he tried an immunotherapy drug, Keytruda, intended to prompt immune cells to attack his cancer cells. But instead of reducing or eliminating his tumors, new tumors appeared, he said.
Earlier this year, two of his chemotherapy medications caused severe neuropathology in his limbs, causing him to lose his ability to walk unassisted, eat and write, he said.
“My hands still feel like they are shrink-wrapped,” he said in September.
In the spring, different chemotherapy drugs gave him severe diarrhea, making it impossible for his body to absorb necessary nutrition, he said.
“I was watching him diminish in front of me,” Iris said.
Around the same time, an oncologist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs advised the couple to give up treatment and look into hospice care.
“It was a terrible, demoralizing time,” Iris said.
In August, he was diagnosed with small-intestine bacterial overgrowth, an overabundance of bacteria in the small intestine. Identifying the problem allowed Riesing to gain weight and strength again. He also regained his ability to walk assisted and write.
Despite setbacks, Riesing is confident that he can live with his tumors, and his oncologist, Chen, is also hopeful.
“I hope he can be in this state for an extended period,” Chen said.
However, Riesing’s ability to pay for his treatment has been depleted over the years. While Medicare covers his nontraditional chemotherapy and vitamin C treatments, his hyperthermia costs $2,000 a month, which he can no longer afford. So, the couple started a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for his necessary treatment.
“The finances of staying alive when you have cancer is a terrible tragedy in our country,” Iris said.