It was 15 years ago this month, but I'll never forget those words. When my wife Jen and I asked her oncologist about our plans to start a family, he calmly replied, "Well, I wouldn't do so unless Dave is prepared to be a single father."
About 50 percent of all people with cancer have a rare type, like the one Jen was fighting.
Time stood still. The danger crystalized — we were in a battle for my beautiful bride's life, and the odds were not in our favor.
We felt every emotion expected. Anger, sadness, confusion, frustration, and especially fear. But we made a very intentional choice to take that fear, put it to the side, and do everything we could to live our lives together to the fullest.
We focused first on Jen's health and learned everything we could about MFH Sarcoma. I was with her every step of the way — for hundreds of medical appointments, six intense surgeries, and twenty different types of chemotherapy. During such a challenging time, our choice to reject fear allowed us to live our best lives. Our careers blossomed, we enjoyed several international vacations, and Jen inspired thousands of fellow patients through her blog and speeches.
When we researched treatment options we learned that Jen was not alone. About 50 percent of all people with cancer have a rare type, like the one Jen was fighting. However, rare cancers don't get the funding they desperately need so effective treatment options are hard to find. The lack of funding felt unfair — and urgent. We didn't worry about everything that can go wrong when starting a new venture. Instead, we jumped in head first and convinced a small group of friends and family to ride stationary bikes with us to raise money for rare cancer research.
Jen Goodman Linn, riding a stationary bike for Cycle for Survival.
(Courtesy David Linn)
From those humble beginnings, Cycle for Survival grew steadily. After starting from scratch, Jen and I ran Cycle for Survival on our own for two years. We quickly realized that if we wanted to help as many people as possible, we needed the best partners. In 2009, we agreed that Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center would take over the ownership of Cycle for Survival and Equinox officially became the Founding Partner. Flash forward to today, and Cycle for Survival has raised more than $220 million! I'm proud that 100% of every donation, yes every penny, goes directly into life-saving rare cancer research within six months of the annual indoor cycling events, which now take place in 17 cities nationwide.
While Cycle for Survival's trajectory was heading straight up, Jen's health struggle was devastatingly swinging up and down. With her incredible spirit and tenacity, Jen would beat the cancer through chemo and surgery, but then it would frustratingly come back again and again. After going into remission six times, it returned with such a vengeance in 2011 that even the world's leading doctors were forced to say, "I'm sorry, there's nothing more we can do."
Those were the most difficult words I've ever heard, by far. I hope no other family has to hear these crushing words.
When Jen died soon after, I didn't know what would happen to me, to my life, and to Cycle for Survival. I do remember making two very important choices at the time. First, I chose to get out of bed and put one foot in front of the other. It wasn't easy. Tears, pain, and grief would hit at any hour of the day or night. I did have a great support network of family and friends who kept me moving forward. One friend in particular changed the route of her morning runs so that I would join her and start getting back to exercising.
My second key choice was to stay involved with Cycle for Survival. At times, it was an excruciatingly difficult decision because I felt the depth of my loss each and every time I stepped into one of the events. However, it was also rewarding and energizing because I could see firsthand how many people it was helping, even though it was too late for Jen.
I began to travel across the country with the Cycle for Survival staff. My hope was to spread the word about rare cancers; along the way I met a lot of wonderful people who shared their stories with me. What I soon realized is that each of us faces obstacles in our lives. For me, it was losing the person who I wanted to spend my life with. For others, it might be challenges with their kids or in their professional lives. The common theme is that we don't have control over the fact that we have to face these challenges. But the biggest lesson I've learned is that we very much do have a choice in how we react.
I made the choice to do everything I can to help rare cancer patients and their families and it has been transformative and healing for me. The small group who rode in the first Cycle for Survival event has grown into a powerful movement of nearly 40,000 riders making a real difference. If Jen were diagnosed today, there are new treatments available– including genomic sequencing, targeted therapies, and immunotherapies – that could help her. Those weren't even options a short time ago. That's the result of funding research.
A recent Cycle for Survival event shows the passion and power of the community.
(Courtesy David Linn)
I also want to share one more choice I made. Remember that friend who changed the route of her morning runs so I could start exercising after Jen died? Well, over the years friendship grew into love, and we're now building a home together and can't wait to see what the future holds for us.
So with all that in mind I ask – when you face those inevitable challenges in your life, how will you choose to react? Remember that even in the midst of hopelessness, you can find choices. Those will be the decisions that define and guide you.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”