A Cancer Patient Turned Cancer Doctor Says Survival Can't Be Treatment's Only Goal

"I felt like I owed it to everyone because I survived."

It was right around Christmas time when Gregory Aune was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. 

He was a sophomore in high school living on a farm with his family in eastern Washington. Suddenly, he went from being a successful student-athlete to a cancer patient.

"That kind of turned everything upside down," Aune, now a doctor, told A Plus. "It was a pretty traumatic experience — I think — like it is for most kids who go through something like that."

At the time, Aune had no interest in medicine. His dad was a plumber and his mom was a teacher. Fortunately, the disease he was battling had a survival rate around 85 percent, so his chances of getting through it were pretty good. What frustrated him, though, was that making it out alive "wasn't the entire story of survival."

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A picture of Aune in the newspaper after returning to football his senior year of high school. Gregory Aune

Like many patients who undergo chemotherapy, he lost almost 70 pounds, suffered bouts of nausea and vomiting, and watched his hair fall out.

"It seemed like there had to be a better way to take care of patients than what I experienced,"  Aune said. "It seemed like there was a ton of room for improvement… I felt like I owed it to everyone because I survived." 

Not long after beating Hodgkin's lymphoma, Aune began musing about a future as a physician. He quickly developed an interest in pediatric oncology, a field of medicine that focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of childhood cancer. Eventually, he attended Pacific Lutheran University, where he graduated summa cum laude with degrees in chemistry and biology. He pursued medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and got his residency at Johns Hopkins, but more challenges were right around the corner.

In the first few months of a hematology-oncology fellowship, Aune underwent a triple bypass heart surgery. During his medical training, he had learned that this kind of surgery was more common amongst patients like him who had undergone chemotherapy as children. The open heart surgery became another guiding moment for him, and he decided to start investigating the long-term effect cancer treatment has on patients. 

Aune showing off his microscope skills to the team at The Pablove Foundation in Los Angeles on a recent visit. The Pablove Foundation

"I think that changed my thinking from a professional standpoint about where I wanted to put my time," Aune said. "I would never be where I'm at had I not experienced what I did as a teenager."

The heart surgery was, in many ways, a greater challenge than cancer. Aune was in school, had kids, had loans and bills to pay, and this second battle that was borne out of the first was a wake up call about what survivors are facing everywhere. And the scope of the problem is growing every day: there are about 500,000 survivors of childhood cancer in America right now, which is an enormous positive — 30 years ago, Aune said, kids weren't surviving cancer. But it also presents a new challenge: many thousands of those survivors are facing the same challenges Aune faced.

Since beginning his work in the lab, Aune's research has been primarily focused on the class of drugs called anthracycline, which are incredibly important in killing cancer during chemotherapy. But numerous studies have shown that some of those cancer-killing drugs also damage the heart when they poison the body. What they don't know is why a fairly small dose of something like anthracycline in children ends up causing heart damage all these years later, which is exactly what Aune is trying to figure out in the lab.

So far, the research has turned in enough results that he's now a two-time recipient of the Powered by Pablove seed grant program, which gave him $50,000 for a year of funding in 2016. 

"Aune's research and progress was so fantastic that in 2017 we renewed his grant, providing an additional year of funding for him to continue his important work," Leah Reichman, the research grants administrator for Pablove, told A Plus.

Aune proudly holds up his Powered By Pablove grant award inside his Texas laboratory.  The Pablove Foundation

Aune has now moved on to exposing mice to different kinds of therapies and hopes to track how it affects their bodies. Some of his work has shown that in small numbers of animals, the profiles of toxic cardiac response are similar enough to human patients that researchers believe they could model out long-term results effectively in mice. This could mean more tests in shorter amounts of time to determine what medicines are the most toxic and most damaging to the heart.

The ultimate goal is to map out the treatments that are the least toxic for children, making the experience of childhood cancer a little more bearable — and making better long-term health results possible. It's unlikely we can stop using the chemotherapy drugs we have now, Aune said, but it's possible that in the coming years physicians could create a regime that causes less risk based on Aune's work.

"Our goal isn't just survival, it's survival with a great quality of life," Aune said. "I would never be where I'm at had I not experienced what I did as a teenager."

A Plus is proud to announce that we are partnering with The Pablove Foundation during September, which is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Their mission? To fight childhood cancer with love. Learn more at the link above, and to donate click here.

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