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‘Every day is a miracle’: Terminal cancer patient at OHSU defies odds with new treatment

Lisa Wooden is just the second person in the U.S. to receive a new mesothelioma treatment. OHSU is only the third site in the country certified to offer it.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The pandemic has many wishes for the future, but, even in the COVID-19 era, Lisa Wooden is focused on the here and now.

“Every day is a miracle,” Wooden said. “And I try not to think about the future because I didn’t think I’d be here this year.”

Wooden has terminal cancer. In January 2019, she thought she had the flu, but she wasn’t getting any better. After numerous tests, came a rare cancer diagnosis of biphasic stage 4 mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma happens in the thin layer of tissues that covers internal organs, such as the lungs or stomach. Only about 3,000 cases are diagnosed in the U.S. every year, according to the American Cancer Society.

Doctors told Wooden that she had a large tumor the size of a grapefruit on her chest wall, near her lung. In January 2019, she was told she likely only had one year to live.  

“I could see that it was going to be this huge fight,” Wooden said.

It was a shock, but she found strength in her family. Her 23-year-old daughter moved back home to Oregon from North Carolina to be with her mom through the fight.  

“My daughter is the light of my life,” she said.

She also had the perfect partner for the journey, her then-boyfriend Peter Hansen.

“He is my rock. He is my rock. I don’t want to get teary, but he has gotten me through this,” Wooden said.

Surgery wasn’t an option and Wooden had complications with some of her treatments. So, Hansen went to work, researching any and all other options to give Wooden more time.

“When he discovered it was terminal, he just spent so much time researching and doing everything he could to save my life,” she said.

What Hansen found was a new, first-of-its-kind treatment for mesothelioma.

“Little by little we were running out of treatment options,” Wooden said. “Peter had stumbled upon this TTF therapy through Novacure.”

TFF or “Tumor Treating Fields” treatment is the first FDA-approved treatment for mesothelioma in 15 years. It uses electric fields tuned to specific frequencies to disrupt cell division, inhibiting tumor growth, and potentially, causing cancer cells to die.

“The cancer cells don’t have a chance to divide. So, it keeps them, basically, freaking out, ‘Hey, we can’t do anything here,’” as Wooden described it.

Hansen shared all of his research with Wooden’s doctor Gary Takahashi, M.D., assistant professor of medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine.

Wooden is just the second patient in the U.S. to use the treatment following FDA approval. OHSU is the third site in the country certified to offer the treatment.

Wooden has been using the treatment since October 2019 and her tumor has had limited growth. Dr. Takahashi calls her a miracle.

“I’m still here and I don’t know for sure why I am, but I know this device is probably part of the reason why,” Wooden said.

While Wooden has been the one fighting the disease, she says she couldn’t go through it alone. Her partner and now-husband is helping her through. Just five months after her diagnosis, in June 2019, the couple tied the knot.

“Even though he didn’t have to, when I had a terminal diagnosis, he still wanted to marry me,” Wooden said.

Wooden is not sure what the future holds or how long she’ll have with the love of her life, but she is thankful for each day she gets. It’s a lesson for all of us in these uncertain times.

“I just want people to know you can still take each moment and each day and just savor it,” Wooden said. “Every day is a good day.”