By Cecilia Chan
GSN Managing Editor
Josh Critser was just starting his nursing studies at school when he said he heard the life-changing news: “You’ve got cancer.”
Critser was diagnosed with testicular cancer and was told his tumor had a 25 percent chance of returning when it was removed.
“My cancer was an overachiever,” he said. “By the time I finished my first semester, the cancer had returned.”
He underwent 21 cycles of chemotherapy, eight hours of surgery and spent 12 days in the hospital in his fight against stage 2 cancer.
Today, the 34-year-old Mesa man is able to tell his story — and credits the staff and treatment he received from Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert.
Criter’s story was one of several that survivors who owe their life to the center told at its third annual Cancer Survivorship Day last week.
“There’s been many victories here, some defeats but through it all we never lost hope (while) in this building,” said Critser, who’s been cancer-free for a little over a year “I’m a nursing student, a volunteer and a survivor.”
With much fanfare, Banner MD Anderson opened it doors in September 2011 at Banner Gateway Medical Center campus in Gilbert, a partnership between Banner Health and MD Anderson, headquartered in Houston, Texas.
The fanfare turned out to be more than warranted.
From 2011 to 2018, the center recorded 813,030 patient visits and is on track for nearly 200,000 visits in 2019, according to Corey Schubert, a Banner Health spokesman.
At its debut, officials heralded the $109 million state-of-the-art facility would usher in a new era of unprecedented cancer care in Arizona.
In 2013, the first stem-cell transplant in a patient with multiple myeloma was performed, part of the Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy Program at MD Anderson, according to Schubert
The cancer center has taken part in a multitude of cutting-edge research projects and clinical trials, many of which have led to drugs and treatments that have since become FDA approved, he said.
The center’s accomplishments included:
2014: Started a tissue bank, where medical experts are collecting and storing a variety of cancerous tissue samples to research the causes of cancer and better fight the disease. Tissue banks, or biobanks, are facilities that collect, store and manage the use of biological samples for current and future research.
2014: Received Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy accreditation for autologous stem-cell transplants. This type of transplant involves collecting stem cells from the patient to harvest, freeze and store in order to return them to the patient after intensive therapy.
2015: Began offering blue-light cystoscopy to detect papillary cancer of the bladder. The innovative procedure enables a doctor to use blue light to better view certain bladder cancers, similar to the way black light makes scorpions luminescent.
White light cystoscopy had been the primary method used to view suspicious lesions during surgery to remove bladder tumors. However, when used on its own, harder-to-see tumors can be missed.
2016: Opened the first CAR T-cell trial in Arizona with CAR T-cell therapy for the treatment of relapsed/refractory large B-cell lymphoma.
Also, the first patient in Arizona was treated with Lu-DOTA-Tyr-Octreotate (Lutathera), a novel radionuclide therapy on site under Advanced Accelerator Application’s Expanded Access Program for patients with inoperable neuroendocrine tumors.
2017: Becomes among only a handful of sites in the United States to offer a new diagnostic imaging tool to identify neuroendocrine tumors. These rare tumors, which can be benign or malignant, historically have been difficult to diagnose. This process better detects tumors not seen on many other standard imaging scans.
2017: Opened the T.W. Lewis Melanoma Center of Excellence for melanoma diagnosis, treatment, and research in the Southwest. Support from donors and a matching gift from the T.W. Lewis Foundation generated $3.5 million to create the center. By the end of its first full year of operation, the Center treated approximately 450 melanoma patients.
2017: Received full FACT accreditation for allogeneic stem-cell transplants and cellular effector therapy. Participated in a trial leading to FDA approval for the treatment of follicular lymphoma.
2018: Launched a pilot program to bring Arizona State University pre-med students into an emergency department to learn the best ways to communicate with patients. Also participated in clinical trials for oncology therapies, which received FDA approval, for the treatment of cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma and refractory non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
2019: Performed the first cord-blood transplant in a national phase I clinical trial by using an investigational treatment in patients with colorectal cancer and other advanced solid tumors.
Over time, the center has grown, expanding its radiation-oncology program in 2014 to Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, Banner Boswell Medical Center in Sun City and Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa.
In April of that year, it also opened its second phase of its outpatient facility, a major addition that greatly expanded specialty cancer treatment services and prevention programs in Arizona.
The three-story addition includes the James M. Cox Center for Cancer Prevention and Integrative Oncology, additional clinic and infusion space, a separate hematology/stem cell transplant clinic, and expanded radiation oncology space.
Every year, the number of survivors grows for the event, said Lynn Schuster, an acute care nurse practitioner who leads the center’s Survivorship Program.
“Today is a day we celebrate those who survived, those who passed and those still fighting,” she told the crowd.
Lamont Yoder, CEO of Banner Gateway Medical Center and Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, also recognized cancer survivors and patients.
“Each of you inspire me in what I do every day to create a place of refuge, hope and inspiration,” he said.
The survivors were entertained by Evelyn Clair Abplanalp, a singer and songwriter from Florence who competed in the 2017 season of America’s Got Talent when she was 13.
The teen, who goes by the stage name Evie Clair, sang and played the piano and later said her father was treated at MD Anderson for colon cancer and died as she was appearing for the talent show’s finals.
Mesa resident Dave Thigpen also shared his journey battling stage 4 melanoma. He was diagnosed in 2015 when he was 71.
“I’m a Vietnam vet, a husband, a father, a volunteer but I’m also a survivor,” he said.
The cancer started on his foot and in a matter of seven weeks, it had metastasized from his foot to his leg, traveled to his groin, up to his hip and then to the left side of his neck and finally his brain, he said.
His treatment included 19 months of chemotherapy every two weeks.
Thigpen said he thought he would need to send his wife to therapy to deal with his diagnosis and assured her if he could survive Vietnam, he could survive cancer.
He also jokingly told her if he were to die, it would be in a bar fight.
Now that he is cancer-free, his wife has been asking him once a week if he wanted to go to bar, he said.
“I suspect strongly she has found my (life) insurance,” joked Thigpen, who turns 75 next month.
For those facing cancer, he gave a world of advice. During his chemo sessions, the thing he saw with those who excelled in their treatments were they all had a positive attitude, faith and humor.
Doctors and treatment can only do so much, the rest is up to the patient, he said.
“Once you’ve been told you got to get treatment for cancer, you must put your best foot forward to fight it,” he said.