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Chasing a Cure for One of the Deadliest Cancers

As a professor and chairman of the Cal State Los Angeles Mechanical Engineering Department, Darrell Guillaume spent his days explaining complex concepts. So, when he began losing control of his speech in early 2016, he knew something was wrong. "What I wanted to say didn't match the words that actually came out," explains the 59-year-old.

A CT scan in St. Jude's Emergency Department revealed a mass on his brain, and emergency surgery the next morning by a St. Jude neurosurgery team confirmed the diagnosis: a glioblastoma (GBM), an aggressive form of brain cancer that offers a five-year survival rate of just 5 percent.

Shortly after surgery, Darrell and his wife Andrea, a professor of education, met with David Park, MD, Medical Director, Oncology Services and a board-certified medical oncologist at the St. Jude Crosson Cancer Institute, who encouraged Darrell to consider an out-of-the-box treatment in addition to radiation and chemotherapy. The innovative treatment, called Optune, uses electrodes attached to the scalp to target glioblastoma cells with rapidly alternating sequences of low-intensity electrical frequencies. The result is the disruption of glioblastoma cells' ability to divide and multiply without impacting slower-growing healthy brain cells.

Early research shows an increase in three-year survival rates from 16 to 21 percent, and at five years, a doubling of survival rates to 13 percent. "We decided that if Optune could add even a few months and allow me to see our son graduate from medical school, then we were all in," explains Darrell, who retired after his diagnosis.

Typically worn 18 hours a day, Darrell wears the device for more than 23 hours, removing it only to shower. "Dr. Park gave us some advice that changed our whole outlook," explains Andrea. He said, "If you're a betting man, don't bet on GBM. But if you're a player, then play to win."

* * *

Darrell not only saw his son graduate from medical school, he watched his second son get married, celebrated his 35th wedding anniversary with Andrea, and most recently, held his first grandchild. He and Andrea finished visiting all 50 states, went to Ireland, and walked over 4,000 miles together—all with Darrell wearing a bucket hat over his Optune device that makes it almost unnoticeable, except for a small group of wires extending to a battery inside a backpack. And according to Andrea, they're not done yet.

"Dr. Park is the hero of our story," she says, explaining that it's difficult to imagine a more knowledgeable or insightful physician. "Every single day is a gift."

A notoriously difficult cancer to treat, Optune represents the first advance in glioblastoma outcomes in over a decade. Experts at the St. Jude Crosson Cancer Institute are now researching its use in lung cancer with brain metastasis. "Optune offers an entirely different way of treating cancer," explains Dr. Park, who says that for some patients, like Darrell, it may even offer a cure. Remarkably, four years after his diagnosis, Darrell has no visible signs of disease.

But an across-the-board cure is still in the future. "Until then, we'll continue to search for improvements from every angle: from better surgical techniques to new immunotherapies and more successful targeted therapies," Dr. Park explains.

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