Phoenix brain tumor center aims to cure same cancer that took Sen. John McCain’s life

The Ivy Brain Tumor Center is working on dozens of clinical trials to find a cure for the glioblastoma and an East Valley woman says she refuses to be a victim.
Published: Aug. 25, 2023 at 8:54 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - One of Senator John McCain’s children, Andy McCain, is a board member of the Ivy Brain Tumor Center in Phoenix. The center prides itself on being the largest dedicated research and clinical space for brain tumor patients in the country.

“With the passing of Senator McCain, it’s a moment of reflection on not only his incredible life and legacy but on the plight of the brain tumor patient and their family,” said Dr. Nader Sanai, Director of Ivy Brain Tumor Center.

Dr. Sanai said their goal is to investigate new treatment options through clinical trials in hopes of finding a cure for brain cancer. The National Brain Tumor Society estimates glioblastoma kills more than 10,000 people every year in the U.S., and the average length of survival for patients is only eight months.

But one Valley woman refuses to be part of those statistics. Jenn Ortiz is a survivor. “My doctor said 12 to 15 months. I let one tear out, and I said not me. It’s not taking me. I have too much,” she said.

That was three years ago. Ortiz admires the late Senator John McCain, who faced the same disease she’s currently fighting. “I look at John McCain’s journey. He was in a tiger cage, and he refused to leave without his counterparts. That’s a hero, that’s an inspiration,” she said.

The 43-year-old lives with a glioblastoma diagnosis and refuses to be a victim. Glioblastoma is the deadliest and most aggressive form of brain cancer. “What came to mind first was I’m not dying. I’m saving me, and I’m saving everyone after me. Where do we begin?” said Ortiz.

The Valley mother has found a new purpose as a patient advocate for others diagnosed with brain cancer. She’s been part of clinical trials, including one at the Ivy Brain Tumor Center. “Ivy saved my life,” she said.

Sen. John McCain went from a prisoner of war to a global ambassador for democracy and human rights.

Dr. Sanai explains that glioblastoma is incurable, the cause is unknown, and the tumors often return. The cancer often impacts people who are otherwise healthy. “It adapts to what we’re doing. It breaks through, and then we go back to the drawing board and try to put new pressure on to it,” said Dr. Sanai.

At any given time, Ivy has about a dozen active clinical trials and a dozen more on deck working to find a cure and increase the life expectancy of brain cancer patients. “This is within reach. This disease is not magical. It follows rules. Those can be exploited,” said Dr. Sanai.

Since 2020, Ortiz has undergone two surgeries to remove two different tumors, as well as chemotherapy and radiation. But reflecting on the last few years, precious time with loved ones is her focus. “It’s been truly amazing. My daughter just earned her white coat in May, and she graduates next year. She’s going to be a doctor of animals, same thing, and my son just started middle school,” said Ortiz.

Ortiz is determined to help others going through the same thing and sees beauty in the life she’s been given. “This has been a blessing for me. I don’t know that many people would say that glio is a blessing, but I have opportunities I didn’t have before,” she said.

Ortiz has been wearing a device called Optune nearly 24/7 since 2020 in hopes it will stop cancer cells from growing. The FDA-approved machine treats glioblastoma by creating electric tumor-treating fields to slow down the disease.

Dr. Sanai explained one of the reasons brain cancer is so hard to treat is because the brain is designed to keep things out, such as medicine. So, often, the tumor isn’t getting high enough concentrations of treatment to be effective.

The Ivy Brain Tumor Center is trying something new in a clinical trial where a tiny catheter is threaded through the artery in the wrist directly to the brain tumor. Dr. Sanai said the results so far are showing a significant increase in drug delivery when using this method, which is good news.

“There hasn’t been a new drug approval for glioblastoma in almost 25 years. That, unfortunately, hasn’t changed in the last five years. There are centers like ours at the Ivy Center that are really trying to change the way we pursue new therapies,” said Dr. Sanai.

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