How Dr. Greg Foltz Dedicated His Life to Brain Cancer and Why he Considers it an “Orphan Disease”

Twenty-five years ago brain cancer took the life of someone Greg Foltz was very close to.

“Her father was a neurosurgeon and the chairman of a university department. In the process of his grieving, he mentioned to me nothing really was being done about brain cancer and that what needed to happen was that someone needed to devote their life to this,” says Foltz.

Foltz was a classically-trained pianist, on his way to The Julliard School in New York City.

“I had a career change and decided I was going to do whatever I could to make a difference in the disease. I didn’t know how at the time.”

It takes 12 years to become a brain surgeon. That’s what he did.

FoltzDr. Foltz is now the director of a scientific lab at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle known as the Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment.

Foltz conducts research on genes in a tumor to better determine why some cancer cells grow back.

He also does about 300 brain surgeries a year. I watched as his precise, unfaltering hands removed a tumor from a person’s brain recently.

Foltz invited reporters to Swedish to see the work brain surgeons do, and to raise awareness about a disease that doesn’t receive a fraction of the public attention or funding as other cancers.

Brain cancer is considered an “orphan disease” in the medical community because of the relatively small number of patients affected.

About 22,000 people in the United States – 500 in Seattle – have heard the devastating sentence, “you have terminal brain cancer.”

That’s not a huge number, and that’s part of the problem.

Pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to finance studies involving a disease with such a short survival rate.

Brain cancer is also a sneaky disease, suddenly striking people who seem healthy.

A KIRO co-worker who was super-fit, Brad Perkins, died of brain cancer at the age of 53 a few years ago. Former KOMO TV anchor Kathi Goertzen recently died after a battle with brain tumors. A couple of weeks ago, Seattle civic leader Cheryl Chow announced she has brain cancer and does not have much time to live.

No one knows what causes brain tumors.

“I don’t even have allergies. Other than having two pretty easy caesarians I didn’t have anything to do with any doctors for any reason,” says Holly Zimmerman.

She was on a camping trip with her family last summer when she had a seizure. Later in trying to figure out what caused her problem, doctors discovered she had a brain tumor. Zimmerman underwent surgery, completed weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, and is optimistic she’ll be one of the few who beats brain cancer.

“I don’t think I will ever be out of the woods,” says Zimmerman, mother of two young children. “I’ve learned enough about brain cancer to know that one naughty cell can go off, wandering off, and create a new tumor.”

“Removing the tumor is easy,” says Dr. Foltz. “Determining why some cancer cells, which all our bodies produce every day, grow back is the difficult part. I’ve always thought we should be able to defeat this cancer which never leaves the brain, unlike other cancers that spread.”

While doctors have made progress in treating breast, colon and other cancers, the FDA has only approved three drugs to treat brain cancer in the past 35 years, and those drugs prolong the lives of patients by only a few months.


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