Pittsburghers Fight Sarcoma: the “Forgotten Cancer”

By: Courtney Caprara

About 14,000 new patients in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with sarcoma, a cancer of the bones and connective tissues. Though it is a relatively rare cancer, sarcoma impacts patients of all ages and backgrounds. Sarcoma researchers receive less than 1 percent of the total funds allocated to cancer research each year, which prompted the establishment of the Pittsburgh Cure Sarcoma (PCS) 5K Run/Walk in 2011.

This Saturday marks the fifth annual PCS 5K, and the goals of the event are the same: to raise funds for sarcoma research and to raise awareness of this “forgotten cancer” by uniting those who are passionate about finding a cure for the disease.Over the years, the PCS 5K has demonstrated its ability to make a significant and noticeable contribution to sarcoma research. Last year’s walk included 2,400 participants and raised $170,000 to support the Sarcoma Foundation of America and the research efforts of two University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) Sarcoma Program physician-scientists, Hussein Tawbi, M.D., Ph.D., and Kurt Weiss, M.D.

DSC_0073_3088Dr. Tawbi was a founding member of both the UPCI Sarcoma Program and the PCS committee in. He is leading several research efforts to find a cure for sarcoma, including a national trial on the use of immunotherapy in sarcoma treatment that is enrolling patients at 12 sarcoma centers across the country. The study offers the most hope for finding a cure for sarcoma in several decades, and it is directly supported by funds generated from the PCS 5K.

Dr. Weiss is a Pittsburgh native and a sarcoma survivor. After being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, or pediatric bone cancer, at age 15 in 1989, he decided to become a doctor to help those battling the same disease he was fortunate enough to overcome. Today, Dr. Weiss treats patients and conducts research at the same hospital where he himself was treated. The PCS 5K allowed him to hire a research assistant who continues conducting research while he is with patients.

“There has been no demonstrable improvement in patient survival in 30 years. The projected five-year survival for patients with osteosarcoma is the same today as it was when I was diagnosed in 1989, and that is not OK. We need to fight smarter, and we must come to understand how the disease spreads in order to stop it,” Dr. Weiss said. “Being involved with the PCS 5K gives me tremendous focus. Gathering all of those people in one location reminds me why I am doing what I’m doing,” he added.

DSC_0109_3124The PCS team has grown over the years, thanks to patients like Jeff Bernstein. He joined the PCS committee in 2012 after having surgery to combat his newly diagnosed gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) sarcoma. “After getting through my first surgery and receiving a good prognosis, I decided to pay it forward by involving myself in the 5K,” Bernstein said. “I had to do something to give back.”

Despite being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in October 2014 and a recurrence of a mutated form of GIST in February 2015, Bernstein is more supportive of the PCS 5K than ever.

“This event came from the vision and hope of two patients, and the rest of us are going to carry it on. I am looking forward to larger participation in the future and a greater awareness of sarcoma in Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas,” he said.