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Story of a CU Anschutz-driven breakthrough

Nichol Miller and family

Under the sunny skies that return to Portland, Ore., every summer, Nichol Miller is enjoying a life of family and purpose. The mother of three soaks in the milestones of graduations, weddings and anniversaries as well as the simple pleasures of seeing her kids head off to school and her husband come home from work.

All this seemed improbable just a few years ago – even impossible. Stricken with an aggressive soft-tissue sarcoma that started in her hip flexor and quickly spread to her lungs, Miller traveled to Denver to participate in a clinical trial of an experimental therapy.

She called it her “hail Mary.”

Breakthrough in the making

At the CU Cancer Center at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus Miller met Robert Doebele, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine, CU School of Medicine, who had found – thanks to an immortal cell line donated by another cancer patient – the abnormal gene NTRK1 in the cancer of that patient, who also happened to be a mother of three children.

Doebele’s discovery set the stage for a breakthrough therapy.

Nichol Miller and Robert Doebele
Nichol with Dr. Robert Doebele at the CU Cancer Center after undergoing the successful clinical trial drug for her aggressive cancer in 2015.

“The finding of an NTRK1 gene fusion in the lung cancer patient made me want to develop a therapy for patients with this type of genetic mutation as none had existed beforehand,” he said. “This led my lab to perform a number of experiments demonstrating that this gene was cancer-causing and, importantly, that cancer cells with this gene could be inhibited with a selective TRK inhibitor called ARRY-470, now better known as larotrectinib.”

When Miller arrived at the CU Cancer Center, breathing was almost impossible without five litres of oxygen per minute. Put on the targeted-therapy drug in spring 2015, called LOXO-101 at the time and taken orally as a pill, Miller showed immediate improvement.

FDA approves targeted-therapy drug

Miller still takes the drug, now commercially known as Vitrakvi, on cycles that start every 28 days. During the cycles ­– she’s currently on her 56th – Miller takes the pill twice a day, and will continue doing so for the rest of her life.

She and her family celebrated when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Vitrakvi last November.

Early on in the development of targeted therapies, Doebele said, researchers saw examples of cancers such as EGFR mutation-positive lung cancer in which mutations seemed to occur in only one type of cancer, or that perhaps a therapy would only work on a mutation when it was found in certain types of cancer.

“When we started planning the clinical trial (of LOXO-101) I had the idea, based on data from our laboratory showing that lung, colon and leukemia cells responded to therapy as long as they had the right genetic fusion in an NTRK gene, that we should include any tumor type as long as it had an NTRK gene fusion,” Doebele said.

Drug attacks the genetic markers in cancer

Because Miller’s tumors had this specific gene fusion, the therapy had the desired effect: her lung tumors began to shrink and disappear and tumor markers in her blood showed dramatic declines. The drug works by targeting the proteins that are abnormally turned on by a gene fusion event. It essentially kills the cancer or stops it from growing.

“The term is ‘tumor agnostic,’ and that’s part of what’s unique about this drug,” Miller said. “It’s not linked to a particular cancer, or where a cancer is found in the body, but linked instead to the genetic markers in the cancer.”

Now her life is marked by milestones.

‘Lab saved my life’

This spring, Miller, 46, got to see her oldest son get decked out for prom and then graduate from high school. For her birthday in March, she and her husband enjoyed a week in Florida – the first time in 18 years of marriage they vacationed without their children.

Nichol Miller is now a cancer patient advocate, frequently speaking in her home state of Oregon as well as during a recent trip to Denver. Here, she is pictured with fellow presenters at an Oregon Health & Science University panel. Pictured from left: Lara Davis, MD; Miller; Summer Gibbs, PhD; and Shannon McWeeney, PhD.

“I wouldn’t be talking to you without (the clinical trial at the Cancer Center),” she said. “It was huge. It was my miracle. It gets easier with time, but I still think about how close I came (to dying), and it makes you appreciate everything so much more and gives you a lot more patience.”

Miller likes to say “the lab saved my life” because she gives full credit to the important cancer studies being performed by researchers at the CU Cancer Center as well as, closer to her home, the Oregon Health & Science University. The gene mutation found in her cancer is very rare; only 1 to 3 percent of all solid cancers have the NTRK1 mutation.

“I wouldn’t be here without the all the work of the researchers and the doctors who are trying to solve the cancer puzzle.” – Nichol Miller

“I wouldn’t be here without the all the work of the researchers and the doctors who are trying to solve the cancer puzzle,” she said. “The genetic testing that found my alteration is incredibly important because the chances of finding something are rare, but for that one person it’s life or death. It’s a new way of looking at cancer.”

When physicians do genetic testing on a patient, Doebele said, they look not only for a specific mutation, such as NTRK, but rather a host of other rare genetic events that may already have, or may soon have, effective therapies.

A standout clinical trial

The clinical trial he administered to Miller stood out for a number of reasons. A key part was the 46-year-old mother who had never smoked but, by 2012, had developed metastatic lung cancer. Unfortunately, at the time there were no drugs available that could treat her illness. Before she died, the woman gave Doebele a sample of her tumor to grow an immortal cell line that could be used for further research and to test drugs against this type of cancer.

Nichol and Marc Miller
Nichol and her husband, Marc, take in the sunset at the Snake River gorge in Twin Falls, Idaho, on their return trip home from the clinical trial in Aurora in 2015. “We knew the drug was working,” Nichol says.

Her donation ended up helping another young mother, Miller, and potentially countless patients in the future.

“Her sacrifice and forethought is something I’m so grateful for,” Miller said of the patient who donated her cells. “I know that’s something people are working on at a national level – to make it easier for people to donate genetic material for research. There’s a lot of valuable information that just goes into the incinerator.”

And that’s another part of Miller’s clinical trial that stands out.

It shows how an understanding of cancer biology can reveal genetic markers which are tested in human tumors, thereby accelerating potential therapies to target the cancers, Doebele said. “We identified NTRK1 in lung cancer in 2012, published the initial laboratory findings in 2013 and 2014 and had started the trial by early 2014 with an FDA approval only a few years later in 2018.”

‘There’s always hope’

For Miller, telling her story and furthering the cause of genetic testing is now a big part of her purpose. She recently returned to Denver as a featured speaker at the “Stupid Cancer” conference, and she frequently shares her story at other venues as a patient advocate.

“My story is unique, and it’s a good story for giving people hope,” Miller said. “I read a lot of survivor stories and they’re what kept me going – knowing there’s always hope.”

Mainly, she’s joyful to share in the life of her family, and seeing her teenagers grow into healthy and happy adults.

“Ultimately, I’d like my children to grow up into a world where there is no longer a fear of cancer,” Miller said. “It doesn’t have to be a death sentence.”

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After a ‘Lazarus’-like response to treatments, Shavvi is back to shredding guitar, loving life

Pumping iron. Shredding guitar. Hiking the mountains. Working in information technology. For Shuvanzan Dwa, the start of his 30s was a daily exercise in the things he loved.

Everything changed, however, when the young man began to notice a pain in his pelvis. The nagging ache persisted, and he figured it was a byproduct of weight lifting, possibly a muscle tear. One spring day while Shuvanzan (who goes by Shavvi) was at home, the pain intensified and he suddenly experienced gastro-intestinal bleeding. He called 911 and within hours was diagnosed with a mass in his pelvis.

Shavvi Dwa on guitar
Shavvi Dwa performs during a recent gig in Denver.

It turned out to be a rare form of sarcoma, and it was growing aggressively. “I thought, ‘No way, that can’t be,’” he said. “I was a fit guy. I ate a healthy diet. Didn’t smoke and hardly ever drank.”

The prognosis immediately got worse. The physicians at a south metro-area hospital administered radiation and chemo treatments. When Shavvi had a severe reaction to the latter, being left so weak he could barely walk, his family got the shocking news that his condition was terminal.

In a matter of days, however, he rallied and began to feel a bit better. Still, the prognosis he received from the physicians was bleak, and it continues to haunts him: You have weeks or possibly days to live, and we can’t do anything more. You should spend the rest of your days with your family.

‘This can’t be happening’

Shavvi was recommended to hospice, and his thoughts swirled: I want to go running. I want to go hiking. I want to be playing my guitar. They must be mistaken; this can’t be happening.

A friend offered a suggestion that, yet again, changed everything: “You should look at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. They do research and clinical trials.”

He quickly got an appointment with Victor Villalobos, MD, PhD, director of the Sarcoma Medical Oncology team in the CU Cancer Center. Considering what Villalobos knew about Dwa’s case, “I was expecting him to be wheeled in,” the oncologist said, “but he walked in the room and looked super healthy.”

Leery after the serious reaction he’d already suffered from chemo, Shavvi initially opted to hold off for a month when he heard Villalobos’s recommendation for a chemo treatment. “At the end of June, Dr. V scheduled a scan and said, ‘It’s not as bad as when you were diagnosed, but the tumors are growing.” The sarcoma was in his liver and lungs.

Dr. Victor Villalobos
Victor Villalobos, MD, PhD

Villalobos put him on an intense regimen of chemotherapy, and the response was immediate. “The type of cancer he has is usually very resistant to chemo, but his behaved very differently,” he said. “He was literally like Lazarus, like he was resurrected. Shavvi had a dramatic response and was back to work, weight lifting and playing guitar soon after.”

That was two years ago.

Family, fan support

Shavvi, who recently underwent yet another cycle of chemotherapy (cycles usually last five days), is originally from Nepal. He was the lone member of his family living in Colorado, but after the diagnosis in spring 2017, his parents and sister moved here from Houston and New York, respectively.

The many people thrilled to see his recovery include the fans of KasthaMandap, the local rock band in which Shavvi plays guitar and sings. In February, KasthaMandap (a historical reference to Kathmandu) opened a show for Nepal Idols, and in August, Shavvi performed as the solo opener for Bipul Chettri & The Travelling Band, a well-known Nepalese group, at Cervantes Ballroom in Denver. “When we get an offer for a gig and I’m not fatigued, I always say, ‘Let’s do it!’” he said.

When Shavvi checks in for periodic chemo treatments at University of Colorado Hospital, he spends his days working on his computer or watching TV. The extensive World Cup soccer coverage brightened one of his five-day treatment cycles last summer.

Coordinated care

Shavvi Dwa on computer
Shavvi Dwa works on his computer during a chemotherapy cycle at UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital.

Lindsay Thurman, MD, assistant director of the oncology hospitalist service, said patients can get “pretty down from having to give up a week of their life, sitting in the hospital and getting chemo.”

But that’s not the case with Shavvi, she said. “He always rolls with it, always has a positive attitude. He’s easy-going and will let us know if something doesn’t seem right.”

Cancer Center patients receive multidisciplinary, one-stop-shop care. They see specialists in all medical disciplines at once rather than having multiple appointments. This coordinated care extends to the inpatient oncology service at UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital.

“Our goal is to ensure our patients get a consistent, clear message on their prognosis and treatment plan — no matter if they’re on the inpatient side or if they’re in the Cancer Center clinic,” said Thurman, who is also an assistant professor of Hospital Medicine in the CU School of Medicine.

Shavvi admits he’s had some ups and downs over the past two years. He recalls the shock of looking in the mirror after completing one of his first rounds of intensive chemo. “When you’re a body builder, you look in the mirror to see if your muscles are toning,” he said. “Everything tone-wise was gone in a month or so. I thought, ‘This can’t be me.’ It was really hard.”

CONCERT T-SHIRT

Shavvi designed a T-shirt shirt to wear on stage. On the front it reads …

Tumors in my Body / Music in my Soul / Guitar in my Hand / Love in my Heart / Strength, Hope & / Courage in my Mind!

… and on the back: #ShavviStrong / #StrongerthanSarcoma / #CancerWarrior

Undeterred, Shavvi returned to his lifting regimen at the gym. Earlier this year, however, he eased off a bit when the lung tumor caused a bout of fluid buildup.

Mostly, though, he’s a good-natured, hard-working and hard-rocking guy. Shavvi always enjoys his interactions with Villalobos and the rest of his CU Anschutz medical team.

“I like the way Dr. V communicates. He explains everything really well,” he said. “If he decides to change medications, he explains what’s happening and why we should give it a try. It gives me a boost. It took a while for this all to sink in, but now, hey, I’m here and I’m able to do the things I love to do.”

Shavvi T-shirt
The T-shirt Shavvi designed for his concert performances.

Villalobos said sarcomas make up only 1 percent of all cancers. Although a cure has yet to be discovered for Shavvi’s sarcoma, the Cancer Center is constantly offering patients clinical trial options and the most cutting-edge therapies. “The center is bringing in national leaders on clinical therapy protocols,” Villalobos said. “We have internationally recognized programs for basically every cancer type.”

Back to rockin’

Villalobos will review how Shavvi responded to his last chemo cycle and then assess the next treatment steps. While developing cures for cancer is the ultimate goal, he said, “more likely we’ll be able to treat the disease and hold it at bay, essentially changing cancer from terminal to chronic disease like diabetes.”

With love in his heart, and strength, hope and courage in his mind, Shavvi, now 32, is the kind of patient who responds well to treatment. Sarcoma be damned. This #CancerWarrior is back to rockin’ and living life to its fullest.

Editor’s note: Photos in hospital room taken by Matt Kaskavitch, director of digital engagement, Office of Communications.

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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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