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Strength in Stories

UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge

October 05, 2024

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.”