Chris's Illness

In the early spring of 2004 Chris began to experience headaches and some blurred vision. This didn't seem serious and appeared to be taken care of by over the counter pain medication. The problem seemed much like a migraine headache of which there was some family history. The blurred vision worsened, however, and Chris visited his primary care physician ("PCP"). His PCP referred Chris to an Optometrist who performed some tests and immediately sent Chris for a MRI. The MRI revealed a "skull base" lesion extending from Chris' right sinus back behind his right ear. "Skull base" means that the lesion was beneath Chris' skull but not actually in his brain.

The local neurosurgeon that Chris was seeing at this time did not feel qualified to treat this problem and referred Chris to a neurosurgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital ("NMH"), in Chicago. Skull base lesions can be either malignant or benign so the first order of business was to have a biopsy to determine the exact nature of the lesion. The biopsy was performed at NMH during the Fourth of July weekend in 2004.

The results of the biopsy revealed that the lesion was a malignant "angiosarcoma." The biopsy results were confirmed by the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The official diagnosis of Chris' condition then was "a locally advanced angiosarcoma of the skull base." The lesion was pressing on an optic nerve causing Chris to be unable to focus his right eye. It was also causing some hearing loss in his right ear and some numbness on the right side of his face.

Normally, angiosarcomas are very aggressive tumors so surgical alternatives were explored. Chris was referred to a neurosurgeon at Loyola Medical Center who had experience with skull base lesions. This neurosurgeon indicated to Chris that the surgical removal of this lesion would involve a nineteen (19) hour operation over two days (the surgical team being able to rest while the patient is kept in an artificial coma). The difficulty and length of the surgery was caused in part by the location of the lesion which had already compromised optic and aural nerves and the blood supply to the head. The surgery would have resulted in permanent loss of movement in Chris' right eye, permanent loss of hearing in his right ear, permanent numbness in his face and some disfigurement which could not be corrected by plastic surgery.

A thorough consultation with Chris' medical team led everyone involved to the conclusion that the lesion was essentially inoperable at this stage. Chemotherapy and radiation alternatives were then explored and a course of treatment planned. Chris began chemotherapy around the Labor Day weekend in 2004. Radiation was not an initial choice because the lesion was too large.

During the next eight months Chris received numerous different courses of chemotherapy. The typical side effects of chemotherapy were just about all manifested on Chris. He spent many days in the hospital fighting neutropenic infections. Nonetheless, the chemotherapy was having an effect and in May, 2005 we were informed that the most recent MRI had revealed that Chris' lesion had been reduced by 70% in most areas and 100% in some areas. Chris was now thought to be a candidate for radiation and in fact had already received some Gamma Knife radiation at NMH for a small lesion which had metastasized to his brain stem. This radiation had completely removed the lesion.

Chris' team at NMH referred him to the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute in Bloomington, Indiana ("MPRI"). One of only three such centers in the country at the time, MPRI utilized an advanced form of radiation that was both more precise and less damaging to normal tissues than other forms of radiation available. Chris underwent treatment at MPRI during September – November, 2005. The treatment took only about an hour a day for five days per week. During the rest of this time Chris was able to play a little golf and relax.

Upon returning home Chris was scheduled for a first follow-up MRI during early December, 2005. We were expecting that this MRI would tell us that the combination of chemotherapy and radiation had eradicated Chris' tumor and that he was in remission. Instead, it showed that the tumor had metastasized to the left side of his brain (actually in the brain) in the temporal lobe area. Chris immediately began more systemic chemotherapy much of it necessitating in-patient hospital admission. Again, the chemotherapy was partially successful, reducing the lesions in his brain but by mid-March, 2006, the tumor had spread to his spine and Chris returned home under hospice care. Chris passed away peacefully at home on the morning of April 7, 2006 after enjoying his favorite meal the previous evening with his parents and good friend Ian Weissman.

The Importance of Research

Chris's course of treatment was apparently very much like other cancer patients. The various regimens of chemotherapy were partially, if not significantly, effective – yet limited by his body's ability to tolerate the accompanying side effects. The dilemma, in layman's terms, seems to be a simple engineering problem – how to get the beneficial chemotherapy drug to the tumor and no place else.

The staff at NMH tells us that dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy while trying to obtain the beneficial results of the drugs, is one of the most prevalent issues they face.

The answer to this riddle is being worked on by medical researchers right now in many places across the country. When this problem is solved, oncologists will be able to select an appropriate chemotherapy for a patient and direct it only to the abnormal cancer cells without harming other similar cells (those that reproduce rapidly) such as bone marrow, platelets and hair follicles.

Whether the solution is found in research currently under progress involving "nanospheres," (incredibly small particles to which a drug may be bonded and programmed), viruses, injectible gels or something not yet thought of, in 5, 10, 20 or 50 years researchers will have an answer and many patients such as Chris will have a viable therapeutic alternative.

The seeds of that solution are contained in research that is under way now. The Christopher Steele Foundation is dedicated to helping raise funds to support that research as well as to raise funds to help make cancer patients treatment easier or more comfortable.

Your support of the Foundation or any of the other fine foundations and organizations that are dedicated to this or similar cancer treatment issues will help those solutions become a reality in a time frame that will aid a greater number of patients.