One woman’s fight against one of the deadliest cancers
By M. Lapham
On Easter 2016, Venis Asmar Hamama lost her father. The following Friday, still dealing with the fallout of a dead parent, she was dealt another blow. Asmar Hamama was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.
Stage four pancreatic cancer has only a three- to six-month survival rate. Staring such dire odds in the face, Asmar Hamama’s family circled around her in what she describes as a “bee hive” to do whatever could or should be done.
While things certainly seemed bleak, the family poured through everything they could. The doctors gave them every bit of information they asked for, and more.
Asmar Hamama took the usual routes of treatment, with the usual hopes and expectations that she would be one of the lucky few.
While hoping against hope, the West Bloomfield family heard about a long shot new treatment that could be an answer to their prayers. The only problem is, it is still in the experimental stage, and only a very small number of patients are let in.
When searching for anything to extend his spouse’s life, Asmar Hamama’s husband, Ferris Hamama, heard a newscast on WDIV about a radical new form of cancer treatment, a combination of adoptive T-cell and bi-specific antibody therapy.
T cells are cells created by the thalamus gland and aid in the immune process. In this treatment they are made to seek and destroy the cancer cells. This is done by developing antibodies that seek out a specific type of cancer. In this case, pancreatic.
To do this they need to extract around 20 billion cells.
For this “seek and destroy” system to work, doctors have to increase the number of blood cells, 500 percent is ideal. Asmar Hamama’s increased to around 80 billion.
“It’s like I have millions of monsters, instead of one,” says Asmar Hamama.
Monsters in this case terrorizing the cancer cells.
The WDIV report interviewed Tony Quinn, a professor at Toledo University who specializes in immunology, and was treated for pancreatic cancer with new therapy.
Quinn still had cancer, but was surviving with it. His life expectancy is way up, and he is able to live his life. Most encouragingly for Asmar Hamama, his cancer was late-term pancreatic as well.
Asmar Hamama and her husband tried desperately to get in contact with him. They hounded him in every way they knew how. Eventually, they reached him, and he helped them start their journey with the new treatment.
Only three people are allowed in per session and, because of the uniqueness of the procedure, only those with the strongest immune systems are chosen. Given both the findings from the tests run and the good response she was having to chemo therapy, she was admitted.
Through all of this, Asmar Hamama had 33 rounds of chemo. Most patients stop after only six, and even those will knock someone around. The ability to endure the chemo, both physically and emotionally, was very important to those involved with the trial.
It took eight months, but in the end, things went as well as they could hope. Asmar Hamama, could head to Virginia for the treatment where she would be treated by Dr. Lawrence Lum, the man who was pioneering the research.
Lum is not only in charge of the trial, he developed the process.
The treatment involves two four-week sessions, with two weeks off for recovery.
Of course, being accepted to the trial is only good if you can get there. It cost $25,000 to travel to and from Virginia for the trial, for both sessions.
Again, friends and family came to Asmar Hamama’s aid, with a little help from modern technology. They set up a GoFundMe account to help raise the money needed. It was completely successful.
Battling cancer was not quite enough for her. She had two distinctive goals with her new outlook.
First is to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer. This is especially important because it usually isn’t detected until stage three or four since many symptoms are similar to so many other diseases and there are few ways to detect it early. Asmar Hamama’s doctor initially believed it to be something other than cancer.
When the cancer has advanced to stages three or four, life expectancy shortened severely.
The signs include:
• abdominal pain
• rapid weight loss
• loss of appetite
• discolored stool
• lower back pain
• yellowing skin
It often misdiagnosed as diabetes, because insulin production is delayed, which may rob a person of vital time.
While there is no known genetic predisposition for Chaldeans and pancreatic cancer, Asmar Hamama says a large number of people in the community have come forward and talked to her.
“There’s not a lot of studies, but the number here (comparatively) is huge.”
They told her about their struggles with the disease or a family member’s suffering.
That led her to her second goal – starting a support group in the Chaldean community for cancer patients.
Asmar Hamama’s teenage daughter helped council someone at her school whose parents were also diagnosed with cancer and needed to know what was what. The act comforted a student and inspired her mother.
The support group is still in its infancy, but has already found an ally in The Chaldean Church and Fr. Patrick Setto who got the blessing from Bishop Francis Kalabat, just before Asmar Hamama left to start her second round of treatment in Virginia.
The church will not only help shepherd people to the group, it will be a meeting place and Fr. Patrick will be involved.
The group, called “Chaldeans Coping with Cancer,” will hold its first meeting in late March or April.
Asmar Hamama feels it is important to get the word out in as many ways possible, since discussing illness is often considered taboo in the Chaldean community. She wants as many people to get as much physical and emotional help as possible.
“I want them [her children] to [have] a strong mom, wanting to do something for someone else,” Asmar Hamama says.
The outlook looks good. So far, all signs have been positive, but Asmar Hamama won’t know for sure how the treatment did until April.