Last year, retired Vancouver businesswoman and Taiwanese-Canadian community leader Carol Pan feared that she might be nearing the end of her life.
On the Labour Day weekend during the annual TaiwanFest celebration, she was clutching her stomach in pain as she tried to enjoy the festivities.
She later learned that she had a stage IV tumour—also referred to as metastatic cancer because it had spread from another part of the body.
Pan had already undergone four cancer operations since 2008 after being diagnosed with melanoma.
Her lymph nodes had been removed. She had been treated for breast cancer. And now this.
Her oncologist, Dr. Kerry Savage, wanted her to have a positron-emission tomography scan to determine treatment options.
The B.C. health plan covered the cost of this being done in Washington state, and Pan and her husband Leigh went down there.
After all, they had been married 47 years and had been together since they met in university 55 years earlier in Taiwan.
This was a medical emergency and these nuclear medicine functional imaging tests, known as PET scans, can detect minuscule metastasis of cancer cells. That enables physicians to pinpoint treatments.
In the end, Pan was prescribed immunotherapy, which helps the immune system mount its own defences against tumours.
“It’s a wonder drug. It worked!” Pan told the Straight in an interview alongside her husband in her downtown condo. “I always tell people ‘If you have cancer, just hang in there. They are doing so much research.’ ”
This year, Pan is looking forward to the 30th-anniversary edition of TaiwanFest on the Labour Day weekend, this time without any pain.
The tumour has vanished and she didn’t have to undergo any surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation treatments.
The president and CEO of the B.C. Cancer Foundation, Sarah Roth, told the Straight that immunotherapy is an exciting new way to treat cancer, though she cautioned that it doesn’t work for everyone.
“It can be a less toxic therapy if you compare with chemotherapy and radiation,” she said. “And it has less side effects and can be way more precise and effective.
“So Carol is a great example,” Roth continued. “She had a pretty serious cancer and a new immunotherapy drug became available to try on her, and it worked.”
The B.C. Cancer Agency is one of the leading centres when it comes to doing clinical trials testing immunotherapy, according to Roth.
She emphasized that it helps to have the very best diagnostic machinery to be able to detect the presence of cancer cells in the body.
“With cancer, we need to go deeper and see what’s happening at the cellular level—and see the difference between the healthy cell and the unhealthy cell,” she said. “That’s what the PET scan allows.”
Pans' gift will help other cancer patients
Pan knows this as well as anyone, having undergone cancer treatments for more than a decade and two PET scans in Washington state.
So after she healed from her last tumour, she and Leigh decided to buy a PET/CT scanner to help other British Columbians in a similar situation.
According to Leigh, they didn’t even debate the issue. It cost them about $1 million.
They were able to do this because before retiring in 2008, they operated a successful wholesale company for many years, supplying rhodonite and jade sculptures to retailers.
Pan said that they couldn’t have succeeded in business if it hadn’t been for their loyal Canadian customers.
At that point, her husband interjected, noting that they owe everything they have to Canada.
“I actually never made any money in Taiwan,” he quipped.
When they made the decision to buy the PET/CT machine, there were only two of these medical devices in B.C. A third has since been installed in Victoria and a fourth will be added in Kelowna next year.
The B.C. Cancer Agency in Vancouver has the machine bought by the Pans, but it hasn’t been installed yet.
“These machines do thousands and thousands of scans, upwards of 10,000 a year,” Roth said.
She expressed appreciation to the Pans for allowing the B.C. Cancer Foundation to publicize their gift and put their picture in the B.C. Cancer Agency building.
The newer machines are more efficient, which will accelerate treatment for those who benefit from this diagnostic technique.
Last month, Pan’s sister-in-law was visiting from out of town, so the Pans decided to show her the facility.
Much to Pan’s surprise, a woman in the PET/CT scan waiting room recognized her and came running after her as the three of them were leaving the building.
“She came up to us and she started crying—the tears were going down her face,” Pan said.
This cancer patient said she couldn’t have a biopsy because of where her cancer was located, so she really needed a PET scan. And she declared profound gratitude to Pan and her husband for making their generous donation.
This highly emotional experience left a lasting impression on Pan, not to mention her husband.
“They were hugging each other,” Leigh Pan recalled. “I was so touched.”