Having lost his father to late-stage pancreatic cancer, Gene Ogle, 58, is all too familiar with the swiftness and brutality of this disease. When Ogle learned he had stage I pancreatic cancer in 2009, he was determined to prevent his father’s story from becoming his own. Under the care of doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Ogle enrolled in a clinical trial, in which the cancer vaccine GVAX was administered alongside the chemotherapy cyclophosphamide. When a second tumor was found following surgery—an indication that the cancer had progressed to stage III—Ogle withdrew from the original trial. After more chemotherapy and radiation, he joined a second trial in which a cancer vaccine was administered alongside the immunotherapy ipilimumab.
Today, Ogle’s cancer is stable. In the four years since his initial diagnosis, he has welcomed his second grandchild into the world and traveled to Las Vegas and Orlando with his family. We spoke with Ogle about his battle with pancreatic cancer and how the immunotherapy clinical trials helped him beat the odds.
CRI: When did you learn you had cancer?
Mr. Ogle: I was diagnosed with cancer in May 2009. I have a family history of pancreatic cancer: My father passed away in 1980 of the same disease. When my father was diagnosed, it was already at stage IV, and he was given 3-6 months and only lived two months. I, fortunately, was diagnosed much earlier and, even more fortunately, was connected with Johns Hopkins Hospital where they did the Whipple operation. I have been able to get into the vaccine studies, and I have had very good care.
CRI: Do you remember what went through your mind after hearing the diagnosis?
Mr. Ogle: Because of the history that I had with my father, I felt scared. My first thought was, ‘How long do I have to live?’ But once I got through the initial reaction, it immediately kicked in: ‘Okay, this is what my situation is, and this is what I have to deal with.’ It wasn’t a matter of ever giving up, or saying that there is nothing else to do, although it would have been very easy to feel that way because of my father. I thought about my children and my grandchild. I thought, “What can I do to be around as long as possible for them?”
CRI: What action did you take?
Mr. Ogle: I had a doctor’s consultation three weeks after the diagnosis. That’s when I was made aware of the vaccine studies. We could not schedule the Whipple operation right away, so I started a vaccine study and continued with it after the Whipple operation. When the second tumor was found, I had to discontinue the first vaccine study. Then, I went through additional chemotherapy and radiation treatments on that second tumor. Once we felt like we had that tumor somewhat under control, they said I was eligible for a second vaccine study.
CRI: Why did you decide to enroll in a vaccine trial?
Mr. Ogle: The study to me was an opportunity to be able to contribute to cancer research. If it could help my family or anybody else at some time in the future, then I would feel as if whatever I went through was worthwhile. It was pretty simple to me at that point. My wife and I discussed it, and we made a decision almost immediately. I did call my children, and the proposal of participating in the study was addressed, and they supported me. It was a very quick, easy decision.
CRI: Was there a point at which you began to feel better?
Mr. Ogle: One of the first things my physician told me on the day I was diagnosed was, “Gene, you’ll never work again. Our concentration is going to be completely on your treatment and recovery. I understand working is important to you, but don’t ever ask me about it again.” But, in February 2011, I was feeling very good—well, ‘very good’ in comparison to what I had been feeling like over the last year or two. So I asked him if I could return to work, and he allowed me to go work a maximum 20 hours per week. I worked for about eight months, until the end of October of 2011. I was always tired after working four hours a day, but there is something to be said for having some type of a normal routine. It is very good mentally, as well as physically, to have some type of normalcy in your life.
CRI: Do you feel your experience with pancreatic cancer has changed you?
Mr. Ogle: I have had to adjust my lifestyle because I just don’t have the physical capabilities to do the things I did before. My wife and children say I was never a bundle of energy before this happened, so they don’t see much difference, but it is very noticeable to me. I still do as many normal things as I possibly can, like get out and see friends, visit family and people I used to work with whenever possible. I went to Las Vegas for Super Bowl weekend with my son and to Disney World in Orlando with my wife and two grandchildren. Fortunately my health was pretty good, and it was a lot of fun.