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Friday Frontline: Cancer Updates, Research and Education on August 2, 2019

From today’s top performers and athletes to medical aid in dying, here’s what is making headlines in the cancer space this week.
BY Alexandra Guadagno
PUBLISHED August 02, 2019
A routine dentist appointment led to a cancer diagnosis for tennis star Nicole Gibbs. The 26-year-old player for the Orange County Breakers of World TeamTennis went for teeth whitening in the spring. That’s when her new dentist discovered a small growth on the roof of her mouth, Gibbs said in an interview this week with ESPN.

“I mentioned this to my primary doctor at least five years ago; she told me it was nothing to worry about, a common bone growth that didn't seem to be growing rapidly or doing anything of concern,” Gibbs said. “My dentist at the time felt the same.” Gibbs also said she didn’t feel any pain or discomfort.

However, this dentist told her to get a biopsy, which she got the next day. The results revealed she had microcystic adnexal carcinoma, a rare tumor that occurs on the head and neck.
 
Gibbs had surgery to remove the tumor on May 17. Unfortunately, because of complications, she missed her chance to qualify for Wimbledon. Her recovery involved going home from the hospital with a feeding tube that remained in place for just over three weeks.

“Cancer was initially my nightmare, but it weirdly turned into a dream-come-true diagnosis because it made me confront so many things in my life,” Gibbs said to ESPN.

The former NCAA singles and doubles champion is currently ranked No. 137 in the world. Gibbs is now cancer-free and returned to competitive tennis in early July at a tournament in Hawaii. She told ESPN she will be playing in several tournaments over the next few weeks before going to New York for US Open qualifying in the middle of August.


Photo via Instagram, courtesy of Nicole Gibbs @gibbsyyyy

Kevin “Racks” Roster, Jr., a World Series of Poker Player, used the California medical aid-in-dying law to end his suffering from sarcoma, a rare cancer, on July 26. A New York native and resident of New Jersey, Roster dedicated his last weeks to educating the public about sarcoma and peaceful dying options for terminal patients. He originally planned to use the new New Jersey medical aid-in-dying law that took effect on Aug. 1, but his doctors told him that he probably wouldn’t live long enough to see the law passed.

The 36-year-old moved to California to access its End of Life Option Act — a law that permits terminally ill adult patients with the capacity to make informed medical decisions to be prescribed an aid-in-dying medication. He died peacefully in his sleep shortly after taking the medication, surrounded by his wife, caretaker and best friend, at his apartment in Rancho Cordova, according to a press release.

After receiving the sarcoma diagnosis in 2017, Kevin dedicated his final days to raising awareness about the disease and the End of Life Option Act through his blog, Twitter, YouTube and by playing semi-professional poker while wearing sarcoma-education gear.

He also had partnered with Compassion & Choices, which is an organization intended to “improve care, expand options and empower everyone to chart their end-of-life journey,” to convince lawmakers in his home state of New York — and across the United States — to authorize medical aid in dying as an option for adults that are mentally capable and terminally ill to peacefully end their painful suffering.

He told everyone he had stage 4 terminal brain cancer, but it was all a lie. For years John Looker had kept up the charade of claiming to have glioblastoma — the same cancer that took the life of Senator John McCain. He became a “cancer celebrity” and star fundraiser for Pelotonia, a charity event in Ohio that raises millions of dollars for cancer research at the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. He was revealed to  be a fraud after suspicious members realized his symptoms were not lining up with his alleged diagnosis.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced on July 29 a settlement with Looker, who was accused of misrepresenting a cancer diagnosis to solicit and then misuse charitable donations for a cancer organization and scholarship fund. Under the settlement, Looker agreed to pay $1,800 in restitution and a $2,000 civil fine. Looker has also agreed to not hold any position with a charitable organization in Ohio.

On July 31, Pelotonia discussed its new regulations in light of the situation, which will require participants to sign a release guaranteeing their statements are true. 

“John was at one time a beloved member of the Pelotonia community. In Pelotonia’s earliest days, he told people he was fighting brain cancer and this new organization had absolutely no reason to disbelieve him then,” stated the release. “He invested fully in an elaborate persona that fooled all of us for years, including his friends, medical professionals, the media and those closest to him. He would get sick on training rides and attribute it to side effects of chemotherapy. He would ask friends to drive him to treatment appointments. When someone was newly diagnosed, he would reach out to them and share his story. And through it all, he appeared to have a positive outlook which inspired those around him.”


An example of a 2016 social media post by Looker soliciting donations. Photo credit: Instagram via The New York Times.

The cancer and dancing communities have rallied around Dorian Gramajo of Virginia — a Norfolk business owner, dance teacher and competitor — to show their support after he received a diagnosis of multiple myeloma. Some of that support has been exhibited through the GoFundMe page set up for the Gramajo family. Within months of learning about his cancer, hundreds of people had donated almost $40,000.

Gramajo and his wife, Tracy, are currently at Duke University Hospital in North Carolina. Tracy Gramajo said that her husband began experiencing back pain in March, which they initially thought was just an injury from dancing but turned out to be cancer.

“It’s been life changing for us very quickly,” Tracy told WTKR News Channel 3. “He has had internal bleeding and external bleeding, just been through the ringer in the hospital. He has had transfusions and dialysis and all kinds of crazy stuff that you never would have imagined he have to go through.” The family is moved by the community’s support. “He is really touched; he gets really emotional about it,” added Tracy Gramajo. “It's definitely something that is helping him pull through this.”

While Dorian Gramajo is most appreciative of the financial donations and emotional support, he is still in need of a bone marrow donor. According to WTKR, there is no one currently in the Be the Match database who is a match for him.

A new contest will launch on UK Channel 4 as celebrities attempt to swim the English Channel to raise money for Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C). “Sink or Swim” will feature celebrities who either can’t swim or don’t swim well as they  make their best attempt at navigating the English Channel.

Although the air date for the reality show has yet to be released, it will feature a host of celebrities and non-swimming athletes, according to RadioTimes.

The stars will not be without guidance as they attempt to face their fears and push themselves past their limits; they will be coached by Olympic silver medalist Keri-Anne Payne, adventurer Ross Edgley (the first person to swim the whole way around Great Britain) and Paralympic champion Ellie Simmonds.

In each episode of “Sink or Swim,” the celebrities will participate in a qualifying swim-off to move on to the next level. In addition to raising money for SU2C, Channel 4 hopes the challenge will inspire “non-swimmers of any age to take to the water at a time when one in five British adults cannot swim.”
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