Lifesaving experience translates to gift for cancer patient care

Pictured with George Fisher, MD, PhD (Right)

After Gary and Susan Grandmaison lost three close friends to death in the span of a year, they decided to take time off to smell the roses. They slowed things down and planned to travel to Italy.

“Things were going great. Then all of a sudden I started having pain in the lower left-hand side of my stomach,” says Gary.  He received a diagnosis of diverticulitis, and a treatment plan that included antibiotics and a liquid diet. But the pain continued to get worse. 

“The pain was excruciating, actually,” says Gary, a former Xerox executive. “I had had a sigmoidoscopy two years before, and it was clean, absolutely clean.”  

Susan strongly suggested that a colonoscopy be done. “I had seen Katie Couric on TV talking about her husband,” she says. The follow-up colonoscopy turned up a 90 percent blockage 10 centimeters beyond the reach of the sigmoidoscopy. 

“So I said, let’s get it fixed, that’s not a big deal. I didn’t know anything about cancer. I thought, they will fix his colon and we’ll go to Italy,” says Susan. A subsequent scan of Gary’s liver looked suspicious; biopsy and surgery the following week revealed he had Stage Four cancer. 

“I asked, how many stages are there? And they said four,” says Susan. When told how serious Gary’s condition was, that he had perhaps six months to live and no options, Susan immediately started searching the Internet. 

“And up comes the Liver Tumor Board at Stanford,” she says. She learned that they would need to go through an evaluation process in order to qualify for the clinical trial. Gary, at age 59, would be the oldest, and the final person to be selected.

At the Tumor Board meeting, they met George Fisher, MD, PhD, and Sam So, MD, who told them treatment would be very difficult, and there were no guarantees. Dr. So, founder and head of the Multidisciplinary Liver Cancer Program, felt that once the tumors were reduced in size, he would have no trouble going in and removing the remaining tumors. Dr. So is the Hac Minh Lui Professor in the School of Medicine at Stanford.

Gary, a husky former Brigham Young football player, said, “I can make it through this, I can do it. Some hope is better than zero hope.”

To their relief, Gary was accepted.

But then four days before the start of the clinical trial came another hurdle, this time with insurance. Susan grabbed her insurance booklet and started reading the fine print. Then she did something most people wouldn’t think to do: She called the president of her health insurance company, who helped arrange for Gary to participate in the trial.

With the referral, Dr. Fisher, the Colleen Haas Professor of Medicine, became his new primary care physician.

On Monday, a month after his surgery, Gary was ready for the clinical trial. The goal of the 90-day trial was to shrink the liver tumors to the point where surgery was possible. 

Gary suffered through many of the common side effects of the chemotherapy of a decade ago—nausea, fatigue, diarrhea, sensitivity to cold—and lack of appetite. Susan coaxed him to eat; sometimes even only one French fry. 

“Susan was always there to take care of me and motivated me to get out of bed. That was really, really important,” says Gary. 

“One of the things I tried to do was rationalize where I was in the treatment: I’ve gotten a third of the way through; I only have to do this for two more months. Halfway through. I can do the rest of it. Three-quarters. Thirty days left, then two weeks, then one week. I got through this. And it was a major sense of relief.

“As the last one in, and the oldest one in the trial, it worked.”

Clinical trials serve to advance the field and create new treatments for others to benefit, while also saving lives. Two of the drugs in Gary’s clinical trial received FDA approval. Recently, the Grandmaisons learned from Dr. Fisher how a case similar to Gary’s might be treated today, through targeted chemotherapy that utilizes genetic information to personalize the treatment. 

“The first CT scan—before treatment—looked a lot like mine, with these big black blobs all over both lobes of the liver. Eight weeks later, you almost don’t see them. They went from the size of a quarter down to the size of the lead on a regular number two pencil,” says Gary. “The cancer treatments today combine chemo with new targeted drugs. In essence, starving those cells to death.”

The Grandmaisons have high praise for their experience and have recommended Stanford Medicine to many of their friends. 

“The talent that’s here—in this hospital and on this campus—is unbelievable. They saved my life. All the staff is terrific at Stanford. It’s all the things Stanford does for their cancer patients—like Guest Services, and notably, Judy Kaufman. 

“Sam So is a phenomenal talent. He did a fabulous job as my liver surgeon. I don’t think there is anyone else in the world who can do what Sam So can do with his hands. And George Fisher is the number one guy in the world for colorectal cancer,” says Gary.

The experience left the Grandmaisons with a desire to include Stanford in their estate plans. They have arranged for a gift that is meaningful to them, one that will create a fund for cancer patient care at Stanford Medicine. “We’d like to see lots of patients have an outcome as positive as Gary’s,” says Susan.