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UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge

October 05, 2024

At 63 years old, Ron Madsen’s life took an unexpected turn. A man who had always confronted life’s hurdles with a robust tenacity found himself facing his greatest personal challenge yet. For years, Madsen dealt with nagging back issues that he attributed to his weight but considered it to be nothing more than a nuisance and dismissed it as a possible sign of old age. However, in 2021, the pain escalated dramatically, making even the simple act of rising from a chair, laying down in bed or going to the bathroom an excruciating ordeal. By Thanksgiving 2021, his pain was unbearable, prompting him to go to UCI Medical Center in Tustin.

Prompt Care and Diagnosis
In a time when just getting an appointment to see a doctor, specialist, or referral of any kind was very challenging due to COVID-19, the UCI Health team embraced his situation with utmost seriousness and empathy. "They truly listened," Madsen recalls. Unlike experiences where his pain might have been dismissed or not given the immediate attention it demanded, the UCI doctor who performed the initial examination on Madsen recognized the severity of his condition and acted with remarkable speed. In just two days after his initial visit, Madsen was scheduled for an MRI, a testament to the UCI Health team’s commitment to patient first health care and their understanding of the critical nature of his condition. He was soon diagnosed with severe degenerative lumbar condition (DLC), and surgery was no longer a possibility but a definite probability. Madsen was referred to pain management for epidural injections that did not alleviate his pain which necessitated a surgical option.

Surgery and Support
By March 2022, Madsen’s situation had deteriorated to the point where he lost all mobility in his legs, relying on his wife for the most basic tasks. He was previously scheduled for surgery in March, which comprised of two arduous days in surgery, throughout which Dr. Yu-Po Lee, attending physician and board-certified orthopedic surgeon at UCI Health, was by his side providing relentless care in surgery and the ensuing seven days when Madsen was in the Step-Down Recovery Unit.

UCI Health's support for Madsen didn’t stop with his surgery. Despite the intense pain, his care team had him walking within two days after his 2nd surgery and quickly arranged for him to receive in-home physical therapy for the first few weeks post-surgery and outpatient physical therapy at UCI Health in Orange that started immediately after the at-home therapy concluded.

Road to Recovery
Physical therapy was a challenging yet pivotal step in his recovery. Navigating through what Madsen recalls as his life's "lowest point," the steadfast caring, support and guidance from his UCI Health care team played a crucial role, turning a period of despair into a journey toward healing. During post-op physical therapy, Madsen first heard about the annual UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge to raise funds for cancer research at the UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Madsen wanted to “Pay it Forward” and share the gift of good health he received at UCI Health by setting a new goal for himself amidst his recovery to participate in the upcoming 2023 UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge.

Triumph and Gratitude
Fast forward to a year later, Madsen achieved his goal: he participated in the 2023 UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge, riding his bike alongside a community of fighters and survivors. His journey from wheelchair to bicycle serves not only as a personal triumph but as an inspiration for others facing similar battles. According to Madsen, crossing the finish line “wasn’t about competing, it was about completing”. He shared, “It was a deeply personal moment in my life. My ride was an emotional day for me when I considered the magnitude of everything that had come to pass – the uncertainty of it all, the wheelchair, the pain, the step-by-step support I received from Dr. Lee and the UCI care team, and  most of all the love and support I received from my wife, family, and friends– to be able to ride a bike and participate in this event, it was an honor that was celebrated with tears.”

Madsen expresses profound gratitude and a newfound appreciation for self-care and sharing his story to inspire and give hope to anyone who desires better health. "I love UCI Health, they gave me my life back," he says, reflecting on the monumental journey from debilitating pain and uncertainty to newfound health, hope, and mobility. This gift of a renewed life propelled Madsen to seek every opportunity to shed light on the importance of proactive healthcare with everyone he meets.

UCI Health’s wide range of expertise, from orthopedic to cancer care, showcases the comprehensive support available to patients, regardless of their health journey. With a team of experts dedicated to various specialties, UCI Health stands ready to support patients like Madsen through each step of their recovery.

Looking ahead, Madsen vows to continue his health journey and support the UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge, showing appreciation for UCI Health. He continues to share his story, hoping to inspire others to cherish and prioritize their health.


A Tribute to Resilience and Joy
The UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge is more than an event; it's a tribute to resilience, honoring those who have battled cancer and their impact.

Today, we honor the inspiring legacy of Jill Hampton, a resilient woman from Irvine, California. Diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 53, Jill had been an avid cycling enthusiast who always found solace and joy riding through the Back Bay Loop Trail to the Newport Dunes. An admirer of nature's beauty, she also enjoyed capturing the vibrancy of bush sunflowers, sharing these beautiful glimpses and her outdoor adventures on social media.

Connections and Community
Within the cycling community, Jill's name was synonymous with warmth and kindness. It was her open heart that paved the way for her bond with Mike Huston, sparked by a simple conversation during a ride about owning matching bicycles. This encounter led to an immediate and deep friendship that spanned over five years of daily conversations and shared biking adventures.

As time passed, Jill's circle expanded to include Megan Yoo Schneider, a newcomer to the local cycling club, Let’s Play Bikes. Much like Mike, Megan was immediately drawn to Jill's welcoming presence and became a recipient of her encouragement and support on her cycling journey. Their friendship blossomed over shared passions for cycling and baking.

Jill, lovingly dubbed “the cookie lady” by friends and fellow cyclists, became renowned for her handcrafted treats—a sweet reminder of her generosity and the joy she brought to every ride. “No one would ever be able to match her smile and her banana bread,” Mike remembered.
The Battle Against Cancer
However, the vibrant life of this remarkable woman took a somber turn with a lung cancer diagnosis that left everyone who knew her in disbelief. During this time, Mike, fighting his own battle against cancer, became a cornerstone of emotional support and encouragement.
“I urged her to fight as much as she could,” he said.

Jill's roommate, Barrett, offered a heartfelt glimpse into the realities of Jill's battle with cancer, highlighting its profound emotional and physical toll. He recalls the heart-wrenching scene where Jill broke down after hearing she might only have 18 months to live, a moment that underscored the gravity of her fight.

Barrett recounted Jill’s loss of appetite, her reliance on a special pad to alleviate discomfort from bed sores and the frequent, painful adjustments she had to make just to sit. Her ordeal included a regimen of medications and radiation therapy which only slightly eased her widespread pain.

Throughout her treatment, Barrett found himself questioning the purpose of enduring such suffering, a contemplation familiar to many witnessing a loved one's fight against cancer. Yet, Jill’s indomitable spirit and her choice to meet each challenge with a smile became a powerful testament to the strength of the human spirit. "She took us all along with her on her journey... and we love her for it," Barrett reflected, recognizing that Jill’s way of facing her fate offered a profound lesson on confronting adversity with grace and hope.

When Megan was diagnosed with cancer a year after Jill, she found unwavering support from Jill, who, despite her own challenges, went to great lengths to ensure Megan never felt alone. Jill's selflessness shone through, even as her battle with cancer took its toll. 

Legacy and Hope
In her final months, Jill's thoughtfulness extended beyond her life, with holiday cards sent to loved ones to be opened after her passing, showcasing her foresight and caring nature.

Today, cycling trails in Orange County and beyond are dotted with rocks inscribed “Cookie Lady Jill,” a tribute from her friends and family to the enduring legacy and joy she spread.

Through the recounted experiences of Mike, Megan, and Barrett, Jill’s impact and her journey highlight the deeply human aspect of battling cancer.

Their shared stories elevate the UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge from an event to a profound symbol of community, solidarity and hope—an enduring reminder that behind every participant lies a narrative of resilience, connection and the unyielding human spirit.


Fighting Cancer Today and for the Future
Kimberly Thorp always believed she could fight cancer – even when she was diagnosed with the deadliest form of cancer for American women, and even when some doctors treated her case as hopeless.
Now, after more than a year of traveling across state lines for treatment from UCI Health physicians, she believes the worst is behind her, and she is dedicated to supporting UCI research that may help others facing similar diagnoses in the future.
“UCI has given so much to us that we want to pay it forward and give others hope,” says Kimberly’s husband, Dan. “UCI is committed to beating cancer, not just treating it. They are in it to win it.”
Surprise diagnosis
As a new mom, Kimberly was the picture of health in 2020: she worked out regularly, never smoked, was careful about what she ate. The family split their time between Henderson, Nevada and Park City, Utah, enjoying an active lifestyle filled with hiking, camping and traveling.
It was a spontaneous trip to Costa Rica with Kimberly’s extended family that Dan believes saved Kimberly’s life. At the end of their vacation, several in their party came down with a respiratory virus. Kimberly was hit especially hard.
Back in Utah, Kimberly went to an emergency room where X-rays revealed fluid surrounding her lungs and heart, nearly drowning her. Intensive care nurses told her they were astonished that she was still alive – the liter of fluid they drained was enough to stop the heart in her petite body. But, it turned out, that was just the beginning.
Further imaging revealed a 6-centimeter mass at the bottom of her left lung: stage IV adenocarcinoma lung cancer. Kimberly was stunned.
“I didn’t even know how to process this,” she remembers. “There’s a lot of misconception and negativity associated with people who have lung cancer.”
Although lung cancer is not the most common form of cancer, it is the deadliest one for women in the U.S. And despite its association with tobacco use, 1 in 5 women diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked.
Exploring treatment options
Kimberly and Dan began researching the best cancer treatment centers in the Western U.S. and scheduling consultations. At the first cancer center they visited, the doctor gave her three years to live and offered just one standard treatment option.
“The whole meeting was really negative, downbeat,” remembers Dan. “It was like a foregone conclusion that she’s going to die. Everything they described left us dejected and doomed.”
The stigma made it hard for Kimberly to tell loved ones about her diagnosis, but one friend jumped into action. She asked if Kimberly could be in Orange County in three days – she had made an appointment for Kimberly at the UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of only 56 National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center in the U.S.
By the time the Thorps arrived, Kimberly was so weak that she needed a wheelchair to get through the airport.
“The cancer was just spreading and having a heyday in my body,” Kimberly says.
Kimberly and Dan immediately felt at ease at UCI Health. A nurse coordinator met with them first to talk them through everything to expect during their visit. Then Dr. Misako Nagasaka came in and began by telling them something they had longed to hear: No one deserves cancer, and there’s nothing you could have done to avoid this.
“That was huge. I felt a great sense of relief,” Kimberly says. “I was beating myself up, what could I have done differently, how could I have missed this and wondering what I had done wrong.”
Their experience during that first appointment at UCI Health was a stark contrast to the tone of their previous doctor visits. Nagasaka, they felt, truly believed Kimberly would get better, and that together they could bring to bear the latest research and advanced therapies to defeat her cancer.
”Having cancer is stressful enough,” Kimberly says. “It means everything to have somebody be your advocate, helping you navigate things, laying out the options – and never treating you like you’re death walking, or just another number.”
Approaching cancer like a puzzle that needed solving, Nagasaka ordered more tests and identified the cause of Kimberly’s cancer as a mutation in the ALK gene, short for anaplastic lymphoma kinase, which is responsible for about 4% of lung cancers, and tends to be more common in younger nonsmokers.
The Thorps found that Nagasaka made herself available to them outside of regular work hours, responding to emails and calls with support, a positive attitude and expertise. She laid out different options for treatment, and was happy to collaborate with physicians and researchers across the country to give Kimberly the best possible outcome. The couple decided they would make the commute to UCI Health for treatment.
“Dr. Nagasaka, coming from a research institution, was talking about innovations and cutting-edge treatments. There was no indication from her that failure was an option,” says Dan. “We thought, since we’re dealing with stage IV cancer, which is pretty bleak, why not go for the most aggressive approach?”
Innovative approach
Because Kimberly’s type of cancer can be treated with a pill, Nagasaka recommended the newest generation of a drug to fight ALK-positive cancer, and at the highest dose. In August 2022, just a month after her initial cancer diagnosis, Kimberly started taking lorlatinib (brand name Lorbrena), which shrinks tumors in 76% of patients with cancers like hers. Just three months later, Kimberly’s tumor had shrunk 75% and the spots on her lymph nodes were disappearing.
In about 4% of people who take lorlatinib, the lung cancer can shrink so dramatically that it’s possible to surgically remove what’s left of the tumor. By January 2023, Kimberly was among that small percentage.
Nagasaka sent Kimberly to see a thoracic surgeon based in Texas who specializes in rare cases like hers. “You’re kind of a big deal,” the surgeon told her, because her situation was so unusual. After he removed the remaining 2 centimeters of her tumor, biopsies showed the entire tumor was dead. Currently, there is no sign of her lung cancer, but she will remain on active surveillance to ensure it does not come back.
Paying it forward
The Thorps are now gearing up for the 2023 UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge on October 7. Kimberly’s friend who first connected her to UCI will be with them at Aldrich Park for the walk, along with other friends and family including the Thorps’ three-year-old daughter. They’re gathering  not just to celebrate Kimberly’s health, but to raise funds for potentially life-saving cancer research at UCI and CHOC Children’s Hospital.
“Other people have given their time and resources, and participated in clinical trials, so that we can be where we’re at, and Kimberly is still alive today because of them,” Dan says. “When you see how committed the people at UCI are, it’s really eye-opening, and we want to help push them over the goal line.”
The Thorps feel so profoundly impacted by their unexpected cancer diagnosis and the level of care they received at UCI Health that they have become donors to the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Already, they are supporting a pilot study of Nagasaka’s that will look at the gut microbiome in patients with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer like Kimberly’s. Small-scale studies like this are the starting point for any major medical breakthroughs.
“I am so blessed and so grateful to Dr. Nagasaka and the entire team at UCI Health. We’ve gotten to know the doctors and see them in action, and we know their hearts are in it,” says Kimberly. “This is about helping and saving others, like they’ve done for me.”