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Sarcoma team delivers best in world care

In an article he wrote after a second bout with a rare form of cancer, Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks observed, “The great paradox of my experience with cancer is that it gave me temporary weakness and permanent strength.”

In those moments of weakness — the first arriving in 2016 and the second in 2018 — Brooks took comfort in the “still hands and clear minds” of his medical team, which is based at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and is, in Brooks’ words, “the best in the world.”

Just as in summer 2016, when an international cast of physicians helped him beat a 15-pound sarcoma, Brooks this spring was cared for by the same group of doctors: There was Victor Villalobos, MD, PhD, an oncologist specializing in sarcomas (Mexican-American); Evalina Burger, MD, a specialist in orthopedic surgery (native of South Africa); and Ana Gleisner, MD, PhD, who performs surgeries on many cancers, including sarcomas (hailing from Brazil). C.J. Kleck, MD, an orthopedic spine specialist, assisted on the May 1 surgery at the University of Colorado Hospital to remove the growth.

Innovative treatments

Albus Brooks' physician team at CU Anschutz
The physician team that cared for Councilman Brooks was (clockwise from top left) Drs. Evalina Burger, Victor Villalobos, Ana Gleisner and C.J. Kleck.

This time the tumor was the size of a grape, not a cantaloupe. Brooks’ first tumor sat on his pelvis, lodged between vertebrae in his lower back. The latest mass, a small chondrosarcoma, grew very slowly in the psoas muscle — part of the hip flexor — and was closely monitored by Villalobos during regular checkups.

Villalobos said the tumor appeared to be a residual disease. “I’m happy with how Albus is doing,” he said. “We’re getting more treatments developed for sarcomas.”

Like many other cancer treatments, immunotherapies are a growing focus in chondrosarcoma care. For a subset of chondrosarcomas, Villalobos said, a drug has been developed that targets a genetic mutation in the mass and essentially turns the tumor off. Some patients’ previously fast-growing tumors have responded to the pill, showing no growth for a few years.

Sarcoma Medical Oncology in the CU Cancer Center is the largest sarcoma center in the region (next-closest is in St. Louis). The center operates in a one-stop-shop, multidisciplinary fashion for patients: they see specialists in oncology, radiology, pathology, general surgery, orthopedic surgery and other disciplines all at once, rather than having multiple appointments.

Patient visits continue to climb, with close to 400 new patient visits in the past year. “It’s been growing by leaps and bounds,” Villalobos said.

‘Magical’ collaboration

Brooks recovering at UCH
After his May 1 surgery, Denver Councilman Albus Brooks walks with two of his children — Kaya and Makai — at University of Colorado Hospital.

Burger, an orthopedic surgeon who has twice operated on Brooks, said the weekly sarcoma multidisciplinary meetings help create life-changing outcomes. “We try to get the best decision as a group for each patient. It’s really magical because of the collaboration and exchange of knowledge,” she said. “It’s a meeting of the minds, and it’s the best way to address problems.”

She noted that the international mix of physicians isn’t happenstance. It’s part and parcel of how the CU Anschutz Medical Campus delivers world-class clinical care. “Diversity is one of the strengths of this university and this School of Medicine,” Burger said. “In every department, there are people from all over the world. They bring different experiences and different approaches to problems.”

Passion for life

Health problems are already the furthest thing from Brooks’ mind. The former linebacker and safety for the CU Buffaloes said he’s feeling back to full strength and is even thinking about competing in a triathlon.

‘It’s really magical …a meeting of the minds, and it’s the best way to address problems.’ — Evalina Burger, MD, on multidisciplinary collaboration at CU Anschutz

As for his care team at CU Anschutz, “They’re incredible. I talked about it in my Medium article. They prove it time and time again, especially with sarcoma,” Brooks said. “Drs. Villalobos, Gleisner and Burger are the best in the world — they’re internationally renowned.”

In the online essay, Brooks mentioned a complication after the May surgery. With the surgery requiring a 10-inch incision in his abdomen, he ended up developing an ileus, which is essentially a lack of movement in the intestines. It can occur as a side effect after a particularly invasive surgery. The condition was treated with a tube inserted through his nose for about 50 hours, removing bile from his system.

During that time, Brooks reflected on life. Among his observations: “Don’t run from your weakness, for that is where you will find your greatest strength.”

That’s one of the many things Brooks’ physicians love about him — the way he turns a negative into a positive. He continues to make quarterly visits to CU Anschutz for checkups.

Burger said Brooks is “truly unselfish and a great family man.” The Councilman, who serves a downtown district, has a wife and three children — Makai, Kenya and Kaya. “He has a passion for life, and I think people like that will make a success of anything you put in front of them.”

Race to Cure Sarcoma 5k

Since his first bout with sarcoma, Albus Brooks has been a regular participant at Denver’s annual Race to Cure Sarcoma 5K Run/Walk. This year’s event takes place Sept. 15 at Cherry Creek High School. Brooks served as run/walk chairman for the 2016 debut event, which raised $40,400 for the University of Colorado Foundation.

 

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Sarcoma research gets boost from fundraising race led by Denver City Council President Brooks

For a debut event, last fall’s First Denver Race to Cure Sarcoma 5K Run/Walk proved a smashing success, attracting almost 600 participants and raising $110,000 for sarcoma research.

Sarcoma research check presentation at CU Cancer Center
Pictured at the check presentation at the CU Cancer Center are, from left, volunteer and sarcoma survivor Susan Rawley; Michaela Mueller, Sarcoma Foundation of America; Dr. Victor Villalobos, assistant professor, CU School of Medicine; volunteer and sarcoma survivor Toni Baltizar; and Albus Brooks, CU alumnus, sarcoma survivor and Denver City Council president. Photos by Erika Matich, CU Cancer Center.

“It was awesome – the turnout was huge,” said Victor Villalobos, MD, PhD, assistant professor, medicine-medical oncology, University of Colorado School of Medicine (SOM). “It also helped raise awareness. A lot of people have never heard of sarcoma before.”

On April 10, Villalobos, who is also director of Sarcoma Medical Oncology for the CU Cancer Center, joined run/walk Chairman Albus Brooks and two other local sarcoma survivors as well as Michaela Mueller, event manager of the Sarcoma Foundation of America (SFA), for a check presentation to the CU Cancer Center. The event proceeds were evenly split between CU and the SFA, minus administrative expenses and fees, leaving an award of $40,400 to the university.

The SFA organized three new fundraiser run/walks across the country last year, and Denver’s race, which got a late start being put together, ended up with the largest participation.

‘Great event’

“It was a great event,” said Brooks, who is president of the Denver City Council and a former CU Buffaloes linebacker. “For a last-minute race to raise over a hundred grand and have that many participants is truly remarkable. Now that we have an elongated time frame to plan for the next race (Sept. 16) we can really get after it.”

Denver Race to Cure Sarcoma 5K Run
Almost 600 participants took part in the First Denver Race to Cure Sarcoma 5K Run/Walk last September along Cherry Creek Dam Road.

Brooks got the shock of his life last summer when, after feeling pain in his lower back while running a couple road races, he went to his doctor. A 15-pound malignant tumor – chondrosarcoma – was found in his lower back. A CU Anschutz team, including Villalobos, Ana Gleisner, MD, PhD, assistant professor, surgical oncology, and Evalina Burger, MD, professor, orthopedics, treated Brooks, who said, “I’ve never had care like that. It was incredible.”

‘It’s nice for people to know they have a sarcoma clinic here.’ – Toni Baltizar, sarcoma survivor

On July 5, Brooks underwent an eight-hour surgery at the University of Colorado Hospital, where the large tumor was removed by Gleisner.

Brooks and a couple other sarcoma survivors who helped organize the Denver Race to Cure Sarcoma – Toni Baltizar and Susan Rawley – praise the sarcoma expertise available through the CU Anschutz Medical Campus and the CU Cancer Center. “It’s nice for people to know they have a sarcoma clinic here rather than have to travel to MD Anderson Cancer Center (Houston) or Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (New York),” said Baltizar, who had a 10-pound tumor removed seven years ago.

Dedicated to new research

Rawley said that at this stage – she was diagnosed with a 3-pound sarcoma a year ago – “what I really need is someone like Dr. Villalobos, because he’s a scientist who is dedicated to doing new research and helping raise money for even more research.”

Dr. Villalobos and Denver City Council President Albus Brooks
Dr. Victor Villalobos, left, is part of the medical team that treated Denver City Council President Albus Brooks when a 15-pound tumor was found in his lower back last summer.

Villalobos said events such as the Denver Race to Cure Sarcoma take on greater importance in today’s political climate. “There’s a possibility of losing more funding for scientific research,” he said. “So we have to look more toward charitable foundations and events like this to actually further the science. This helps us develop the science that it takes to get more funding.”

He said money raised through the race will help fund a couple clinical trials currently in development at the CU Cancer Center. The trials include a combination of targeted therapy and immunotherapy that could have applications for several types of sarcoma.

While there are 80 different types of sarcoma, Villalobos said, many share a genetic imprint that can be targeted with similar therapies.

He also hopes to work with the Sarcoma Alliance to strengthen peer support for patients. “That’s something I really want to accomplish. We need to develop a really good patient support network,” Villalobos said. “I think that’s probably one of the biggest things we’re lacking.”

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CU Cancer Center removes 15-pound tumor from Denver Council President Brooks

Albus Brooks and Dr. Evalina Burger

Dr. Evalina Burger visits with Albus Brooks, a former player for the Colorado Buffaloes, after his July 18 surgery at the University of Colorado Hospital.

Denver City Councilman and former CU Buffaloes linebacker Albus Brooks was literally running full-tilt into summer when a diagnosis stopped him in his tracks. His busy life of work and study – he’d been working on an MBA degree – suddenly swirled with a new layer of stress. Cancer? At age 37?

Fresh off running in a couple of road races, albeit painfully, Brooks went to his doctor, who immediately ordered a CAT scan. It revealed a large mass on his lower back, and a biopsy confirmed it was malignant. When Brooks asked about physicians with expertise in this kind of cancer, chondrosarcoma, all recommendations were the same: “Go to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus; their cancer team is the best in the state.”

Brooks, who represents District 9 on the council, is an upbeat kind of guy, and his outlook brightened when he found focused and compassionate care at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. At the CU Cancer Center, Brooks received the reassuring news that his cancer appeared treatable and he should be able to soon return to his busy life.

“I went home with tears in my eyes,” he said. The emotion was a mix of hope and gratitude.

‘I knew something was wrong’

Brooks, who played linebacker and safety for the CU Buffaloes from 1997 to 2000, was being his usual active self last spring when he felt a nagging pain in his lower back. He ran in the Colfax and Bolder Boulder 10Ks, and “in both races it was horrible,” he recalled. “I felt like I was expending a lot of extra energy. I just knew something was wrong.”

Dr. Victor Villalobos

Dr. Victor Villalobos

At CU Anschutz, Albus first met Victor Villalobos, MD, PhD, who is a specialist in sarcomas, a set of more than 50 different types of rare tumors that arise from soft tissues and bone. Villalobos introduced Brooks to the Cancer Center’s interdisciplinary sarcoma team, where he learned of the team’s deep experience in treating a variety of sarcoma cases. He met Ana Gleisner, MD, PhD, who performs surgeries on many cancers, including sarcomas, and Evalina Burger, MD, a specialist in orthopedic surgery.

“I’ve never had care like that,” Brooks said. “It was incredible.”

Dr. Ana Gleisner

Dr. Ana Gleisner

The tumor sat on Brooks’ pelvis, lodged between vertebrae in his lower back. He went in for an eight-hour surgery on July 5 at the University of Colorado Hospital (UCH), where the 15-pound tumor was removed by Gleisner – a “rock star,” Brooks said. He remained in the hospital for a couple days then went home to his wife, Debi, and three children – Makai, 9; Kenya, 7; and Kaya, 4.

‘Second to none’

Work remained to fuse vertebrae from where the cancer had lodged, so Brooks returned to UCH for another lengthy surgery on July 18, this time with orthopedics specialist Burger. But this time Brooks entered the operating room with a heavy heart. His 71-year-old father, Perry, had died just five hours earlier from cardiac complications.

“This speaks, again, to the compassion of CU Anschutz doctors,” Brooks said. “Dr. Burger came in and saw that I had tears in my eyes and – not knowing about my father – she said, ‘I just want to hug you.’”

Her moment of prayer and silence in pre-op meant the world to Brooks and his family. “It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had,” Brooks said. “It’s just amazing: The relational aspect and the expertise at CU Anschutz – it’s all second to none.”

Albus Brooks at UCH

After his July 18 surgery, Albus Brooks walked daily with the help of University of Colorado Hospital nurses.

Brooks was bedridden for 36 hours after the second surgery, but, with the help of UCH nurses, he got back to his feet and walked the hospital floor each day to regain strength. He returned home on July 22.

‘Cancer chose me’

Brooks will wear a back brace for six weeks. He will then begin rehabilitation exercises for his back and return to the CU Cancer Center every three months for checkups.

Besides everything else that happened on July 18, that was the day Brooks was named president of the Denver City Council. At a recent council meeting, he recounted his experience to fellow council members. “I told them, ‘I was a Division I athlete, and I’ve never been sick. I take pride in working out. And cancer chose me. If it chose me, it could choose anyone. Get checked out.’”

Having an active and healthy lifestyle definitely helped Brooks, but so did his optimistic outlook. He recognizes that sudden illness is just part of life.

Albus Brooks will lace up his running shoes for the First Denver Race to Cure Sarcoma 5K Run/Walk on Sept. 17 at the Cherry Creek Dam Road. The goal is to raise awareness and resources for sarcoma research through the Sarcoma Foundation of America and the CU Cancer Center. You can join him and sign up here.

“Things do happen, and you’ve got a decision to make,” he said. “One, are you going to let it take you to a place where you don’t see joy, hope or optimism? Or, two, are you going to look at this as another day where I can see opportunity and hope? I chose the latter.”

As a public servant, Brooks has always focused on human-centered policy decisions and initiatives. After his experience with cancer, he’s now also a strong advocate for quality health care and everyone’s right to access it. Brooks is extremely grateful that he chose CU Anschutz for his care, and he’s running out of superlatives to describe the academic medical center’s physicians and nurses.

“I sent all my surgeons and doctors at CU Anschutz the articles (in the local media) about my cancer. Those people are all so amazing,” Brooks said. “I’m back at work now, and I’m so grateful.”

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