Former Mesa Chamber CEO Fights Brain Cancer

After cancer, job loss, Mesa commerce leader looks to the future


By Daniel Quigley, Tribune | Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 7:43 am

Peter Sterling’s ascent to the pinnacle of the Mesa business community was relatively fast.

From the time the then-out-of-work advertising executive had moved to Mesa in January 2009 to be closer to his children, it took only two years — nearly to the date — for him to be named CEO of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce.

Today, Sterling nears a one-year anniversary of a different kind. It was last March that he began facing a whole new reality.

Sickness. Uncertainty. Unemployment. Sterling had been diagnosed with a deadly and debilitating form of brain cancer.

“You’re going to die of this condition,” Sterling, 47, said of his prognosis. “It’s a matter of when — there’s no cure from it. You can maybe contain it a little.”

On the rise

When Sterling moved to Mesa from Southern California, he admits he ran into more economic walls than he’d faced before. It was the height of the recession, but selling his Orange County home and moving to Mesa was a priority, given that his 16-year-old son and 11-year-old daugther, both from a previous marriage, live in Gilbert.

“I knew hardly anyone here; I looked at every advertising place possible, every advertising agency and nobody was hiring,” Sterling said.

But Sterling said he knew that if he met enough people, the right people, he could make his own opportunity.

“I knew the only way to sort of get anywhere was to meet people,” he said.

After two years of doing just that and and creating a strong network, the Mesa Chamber of Commerce came looking for a new CEO. Sterling submitted his resume, along with a plan he created for the organization, and almost exactly two years after coming to Mesa jobless, he was the chamber’s top man.

Sterling worked tirelessly to build up the nearly 108-year-old organization he inherited in the wake of the nation’s worst financial disaster since the Great Depression — and he was using the same networking and advocacy skills he used earlier to get his position.

“Every business in Mesa should be a member of the chamber. It’s a great chamber,” Sterling said last month.

At the same time, Sterling’s wife Megan was also making a name for herself around Mesa and the surrounding comunities. She is now the director of programs and operations for the East Valley Partnership — another civic and commerce-centric organization that works to foster economic growth for the region. EVP projects often overlap with those of the Mesa chamber.

“It’s kind of a small world out here,” Megan Sterling said.

Rapid descent

As time went by, the economy started to get better. Mesa was starting to grow again. The chamber was rebuilding its membership.

“Everything was cruising along,” Peter Sterling explained.

Until March 16 of last year, that is.

“When I was parking cars at Hohokam (Stadium) for a Cubs game, I collapsed,” he said. “But it only lasted a minute or so and I felt fine.”

Sterling said he was experiencing his first seizure — he just didn’t know it at the time. He had more later that day, and a few the next.

“It seemed like 80 percent of my brain — my thoughts — was not working, or working in a limited capacity,” Sterling said. “But that would only go for a minute then I would be right back to normal.”

But the recurring oddity was alarming enough for Sterling to go to an urgent care center, which promptly recognized the problem and sent him to the hospital. There, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

By Monday, March 19, he was undergoing surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible.

“The Glioblastoma multiforme, which is what I have, is the nastiest brain cancer you can get — which, thank you very much, that’s not what I need,” Sterling said, chuckling.

Sterling said humor plays a large part in keeping himself focused on his health and making the most of his time with his wife and children. He later joked about possibly being pregnant due to the sickness caused by chemotherapy and radiation treatments and that doctors cut out “about half my brain” when they removed 95 percent of the “nasty, quick-growing,” 2.5-centimeter tumor.

Sterling recently finished chemotherapy for awhile, and passed the nine-month mark in January which he said about only half of patients make. A year is just weeks away.

“I just focus on getting better and making every day work.”

Crashing down

Sterling said his colleagues at the Mesa Chamber of Commerce were very supportive during the aftermath of the surgery and through his recovery, he said.

Current chamber CEO Sally Harrison said the sudden news of Sterling’s condition shocked the chamber and the community.

“You can’t fix his illness, so we did what we knew was best, which would be all the little things, you know, stuff around the house, food, whatever,” Harrison said.

But as Sterling’s recovery transitioned into the toxic backlash of his treatment, the chamber — a small, nonprofit entity with only a handful of employees — began to wear. With its CEO away from work, the remaining employees were doing their jobs, plus those of their stricken boss.

Otto Shill was the chairman of the chamber’s board of directors during Sterling’s tenure.

“A lot of people have put in a personal time away from their work to make sure that the chamber could continue to run,” Shill said.

As it became apparent that Sterling’s recovery would prohibit him from continuing as CEO, chamber officials created a new position for Sterling during the summer. It was a member sales position, right up Sterling’s alley as an enthusiastic advocate and master networker.

Sterling would also be able to keep his employee health insurance benefits.

“For us that was the most important thing,” Megan said. “And for morale, it gave him a cause to be out in the community and talking to people. It was good to have something for him to focus on other than being sick.”

But Sterling continued to struggle with his health and energy levels, and he admits he struggled to do the job.

About a week before Christmas, the chamber board dismissed Sterling, effective Jan. 1 — a move Mesa City Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, who also considers Sterling a friend, said was “awkward” because of the illness and the holiday-timing.

Kavanaugh posted on his Twitter feed the night of Dec. 19, “Peter Sterling was a transformative CEO of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce. His dismissal from employment is disturbing and disappointing.”

Shill said the remarks and those by others lamenting the move are misguided.

“We don’t have any government funding of any kind,” Shill explained. “We’re an independent nonprofit organization and like any small business with very few employees there are limits to what we can do legally and there are limits on what we can do according to contracts, insurance contracts.

“And from the time we learned that Peter was sick until now, we’ve been trying to manage this so that it could come out right for him.”

Picking up the pieces

Today, Megan Sterling is more concerned with the unfathomable amount of medical bills her family faces.

“What happened to him could happen to anyone,” Megan said. “I thought everyone has COBRA, right? No. They don’t.”

The Sterling family found out the hard way, she said, that businesses under 20 employees often don’t have coverage under COBRA. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act allows employees and families in many cases the ability to continue group health coverage for a period of time after employment ends. But that didn’t apply in the Sterlings’ case.

“I will never again have health insurance coverage that’s tied to a job,” Megan Sterling said.

East Valley health insurance broker Phil Bobadilla is CEO of Employee Benefit Exchange, and on the board of directors for the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce. Bobadilla said the situation would have been a “moot point” if Sterling had purchased his own insurance plan, outside of work.

“If you have a group policy, then when you don’t qualify as a full-time employee and don’t have the hours, then you lose coverage,” he said.

Bobadilla said that if Sterling had gotten sick in 2014, when new health insurance regulations tied to the national Affordable Care Act — commonly referred to as Obamacare — had taken effect, he wouldn’t be stuck without coverage.

“We’re good people. We’ve worked hard our whole lives and we did the right things and we saved and all that and it’s like everything can just come crashing down,” Megan said. “That being said, there are some things I would have done differently.”

For Peter, the most important use of his time is to spend the time he has with his family.

“I tell (my kids) I could not be here in a year, or I could and I’ll be making your lives miserable,” he said, laughing; Megan is also ready to move on.

“We’ve been dealt a bad hand lately, definitely, but there are tons of people that are in even worse situations than we are,” she said. “In many ways, we are incredibly blessed. We have our faith, our family, and our friends — that is what has been getting us through.”


The American Dream

Dr. Q: From Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon

Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa’s life is so storied it could fill a book. In fact, it has, as the doctor authored his recent autobiography Becoming Dr. Q. He was also featured in a recent study by the National Foundation for American Policy that found 35 percent of the physician scientists at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center are immigrants.

Known by many as Dr. Q, Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa is Professor of Neurosurgery and Oncology at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Brain Tumor Surgery Program. He also leads the Brain Stem Tumor Cell Laboratory.

There are more than 100 types of brain cancer and of the approximately 600,000 Americans with brain or nervous system tumors about 124,000 have malignant brain cancers. “The research is really the most exciting part of what I do,” said Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa. “I’m not only trying to save lives in the operating room. The research we are doing with this tissue is to try and find out whether or not there are stem cells within brain cancer – stem cells that are going crazy, stem cells that cannot regulate their own growth, and are therefore killing patients. That’s my research.”

In his book, Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa describes as a teenager, at the age of 14, entering the United States on a tourist visa and working illegally over a long summer as a farm worker, managing to bring back to Mexico almost $1,000, which he believed could feed his family for a year. On a later trip, U.S. Border Patrol Agents caught and returned him to Mexico but he later succeeded in entering the United States and benefitted from the aftermath of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by President Ronald Reagan, which gave legal status to many undocumented immigrants. With little knowledge of English, he entered community college in San Joaquin, later graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and earned a degree in medicine from Harvard Medical School.

Along the way, he had at least four close personal brushes with death. He nearly died as a young man when, working as a laborer, he fell into the bottom of a railway fuel tank car and came within minutes of suffocating. While fulfilling his residency at a San Francisco hospital he was pricked by a needle used on an HIV-positive patient and endured a year of testing (and worry) before it could be determined the infection did not pass to him. While in community college, a driver who accused him of cutting him off pointed a gun in his face, threatened to shoot him, and then drove away. And while windsurfing, Alfredo developed a cramp and was unable to swim back to the boat. His date that day was fortunately a lifeguard, his future wife Anna, and she saved him from drowning.

Along the way to becoming a neurosurgeon he faced other obstacles, including the belief that perhaps a young man born in Mexico could not possess the intelligence or ability to serve patients in such a demanding field of medicine.

 In an interview on C-SPAN, Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa described why he wrote his book and his feelings about America. “I wanted to tell the story about this underdog, this kid, who came to the United States with nothing and now based on hard work, mentorship, and doors being opened, and opportunities being given, and me taking those opportunities I was able to show the world that you can still fulfill the American Dream and that America is still the most beautiful country in the world.”

While his rise from farm worker to brain surgeon is a great personal achievement, Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa gives credit to mentors like Harvard faculty members Dr. Ed Kravitz and Dr. David Potter, who both gave him $500 when, while in medical school at Harvard, nearly all his family’s possessions were stolen from his apartment. Dr. Potter told him, “You’ll do for others what others have done for you. I have no doubt.” Dr. Q continues to do for others, meeting students all over the U.S. who may or may not have the same opportunities he has had and encouraging them to never give up their dreams, performing 250 brain surgeries a year on patients – over 2,000 surgeries in his career – and leading a laboratory that he hopes one day will unlock the mysteries of cancer and its cure.

Harnessing the Power of Fluorescent Light

Fluorescent Tracer ‘Lights Up’ Brain Tumor for Surgery

A bright pink glow showed the precise pathway a glioma took to spread through the brain

By Barbara Bronson Gray
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Feb. 19 (HealthDay News) — Neurosurgeons report that they harnessed the power of fluorescent light to illuminate a brain tumor so the entire growth could be removed.

A report describes a case in which a patient with glioblastoma swallowed a pill, called 5-ALA, and was taken to surgery about four hours later. The medication attached itself to tumor cells, causing them to glow brightly. Once the skull was opened, the doctors focused a blue light on the tumor, which gave the cancerous cells a pink glow, so the surgeons could differentiate malignant tissue from healthy tissue.

“This is a very, very good thing,” said study author Mitchel Berger, chairman of neurosurgery at the University of California, San Francisco. “In this case, we just happened to notice we could see evidence of the tumor spreading along the way of the ventricles [a communicating network of brain cavities], which showed we could see tumor dissemination.”

The authors noted that the best way to extend survival is to remove as much of the brain tumor as possible. The research is published in the Feb. 19 issue of the Journal of Neurosurgery.

It’s not always easy to see precisely where a tumor has spread in the brain. Some types of tumors can be particularly difficult to identify and remove, even with the benefit of MRI and surgical microscopes.

The use of fluorescence appears to be more effective than MRI technology, at least in this case, because the glow allows surgeons to see microscopic remnants of the tumor and areas of the cancer that might be mistaken for edema, or swelling, Berger explained. “This is an inexpensive way to identify high-grade tumors,” he said.

Glioblastomas are a fast-growing type of tumor that usually occurs in adults and affects the brain more often than the spinal cord, according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

Why do tumor cells respond differently to the fluorescent drug than the body’s other cells do? Their metabolism involves porphyrin, which has a tremendous ability to absorb light, Berger explained. Porphyrin is an organic compound, like the pigment in red blood cells. The pill used in the case report is derived from porphyrin.

The report focused on the case of a 56-year-old man who had undergone resection of a glioblastoma located in the right occipital lobe of his brain in 2005. Several years later, when symptoms reappeared, an MRI scan showed three distinct, new sites of tumor in the patient’s right temporal lobe.

In surgery, when the surgeons viewed the fluorescent tumor cells, they could tell rather than being a new tumor, the cancer had spread from its original location on the right side of the brain through a pathway along the wall of the right ventricle. The researchers found that the use of 5-ALA during surgery enabled them to see the actual pathway of the tumor as it had spread.

The use of 5-ALA changed the patient’s prognosis. “Multi-centric disease worsens the prognosis,” Berger explained.

While the technique has been used in Europe for several years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved the use of 5-ALA in the United States. Any surgeons using 5-ALA do so with limited permission from the FDA, Berger noted. The medication, 5-ALA, is manufactured by DUSA Pharmaceuticals.

Dr. Michael Schulder, vice chairman of the department of neurosurgery at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., explained that “while the FDA considers 5-ALA a drug, which would require a lengthy process for approval, neurosurgeons see it as a surgical aid, which would take far less time to get the OK.”

While Schulder said he thinks 5-ALA probably will add about six months to the anticipated survival of patients with high-grade gliomas, he said that attempts to improve the ability to remove these tumors will only go so far. “In the end, however helpful the use of 5-ALA or similar compounds may be in the surgical removal of brain cancers, it won’t be the answer. The treatments will have to be biological to truly have an impact on survival, and ultimately, on a cure.”

Schulder said he thinks it would be possible for fluorescence to be used in other types of surgeries, if surgeons could become comfortable using a surgical microscope with the benefit of a special light (something neurosurgeons are accustomed to using). He noted that he also thinks the technique might apply to some spinal surgeries, where visualizing the spinal cord is critical.

17-Year-Old With Terminal Cancer Signs Record Deal

Posted by Carly Lanning

Zach Sobiech was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer, when he was 14 years old, after months of intense hip pain revealed a tumor was discovered growing on his bone. In the past three years of treatment, Zach has undergone every available treatment from hip replacement surgery and months of physical therapy to numerous cycles of chemotherapy. This past year, doctors recently found growths on Zach’s pelvis and lungs and, running out of treatment options, have given Zach a couple more months to live.

Turning to YouTube to share his goodbyes to loved ones in December, Zach’s song “Clouds” has since gone viral with over two million views. In an interview with Fuse, Zach said: “‘Clouds’ originally started for my girlfriend Amy. During the writing process I thought about it and I wanted to make it less romantic because I realized that there were so many people in my life that meant so much to me. It started out with Amy, then it encompassed everyone that I love and care about.”

“Clouds” has not only put Zach on the radar for his musical talent but also for his perseverance and optimistic attitude. Determined to inspire others with his music, Zach has taken all the money earned from his songs and created The Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund to raise funds for research into the rare form of cancer.

Just this week, Zach signed with Broadcast Music Inc. in New York City, and on February 16th will be releasing his album “Fix Me Up” at benefit concert “Up, Up, Up. A Concert for Zach” at Varsity Theatre in Minneapolis.

The Importance of Physical Activity

Physical inactivity as harmful as smoking

By Erica Quiroz

Exercise enthusiasts have an ally in Xifeng Wu, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of MD Anderson’s Department of Epidemiology.

Her recent study of more than 400,000 participants in a Taiwan cohort evaluated different volumes of physical activity and questioned whether fewer than the currently recommended 150 minutes a week of exercise is enough to reduce mortality and increase life expectancy.

                                                                                  Xifeng Wu, M.D., Ph.D.

What she and her team found is that people who are inactive increase their risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes by 20% to 30%.

“Inactivity is as harmful as smoking,” Wu says. “People should know that physical activity can increase their lifespan.”

She used her background in epidemiology, statistics, laboratory study and clinical research to develop a new approach that stresses the harms of inactivity rather than the benefits of exercise.

Wu says smoking and physical inactivity each contributes to more than 5 million deaths a year.

By repurposing the World Health Organization’s MPOWER, a package of six tobacco control measures, Wu has designed a strategy to educate the public about the risks of inactivity.

  • Monitor inactivity prevalence and factors behind it.
  • Protect safety of exercisers.
  • Offer services for inactive people to gain skills for sustainable exercise.
  • Warn the public of the hazards of inactivity.
  • Ensure the medical community fulfills its responsibility to reduce inactivity.
  • Raise money or find funding to encourage physical activity and discourage inactivity.

Barrow Neurological Institute Adds Catherine Ivy to its Advisory Board

As a member of the Barrow Advisory Board, Ivy advises Dr. Robert Spetzler, Director of the Barrow Neurological Institute, on ways to improve the patient experience at Barrow, and on how Barrow can maintain funding for its education and research programs as reimbursement for health care providers continues to decline. Ivy is responsible for the administration, investment management, and charitable grant-making of the Ivy Foundation. She monitors and participates in the design of the overall grant-making strategies and policies emphasizing the needs of the brain tumor research and has awarded over $50 million to glioma research within the United States and Canada since 2005.Catherine Ivy

More information about the Ivy Foundation can be found at, http://www.facebook.IvyFoundation, or @IvyFoundation.

Swedish Offers New Treatment for Glioblastoma Brain Tumors

brain-cancer-gliomaSEATTLE, Feb. 6, 2013 – Swedish Neuroscience Institute has added a new and innovative therapy to its treatment arsenal for glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) – a very aggressive and difficult to control brain tumor.

The NovoTTF™-100A System is the first device to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval as a treatment for brain tumors. It will now play an important role in treating GBM when standard treatment options have been exhausted. Because there are minimal treatment-related side effects with the NovoTTF-100A System, the quality of life for patients treated with this new therapy is superior to that associated with chemotherapy.

GBM was the cause of death of United States Senator Ted Kennedy. It is the most common and malignant type of brain tumor. Standard treatment includes surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and radiosurgery (such as Gamma Knife® or CyberKnife®). These treatments usually control the tumor for only one to two years.

The NovoTTF-100A System is a medical device that delivers intermediate-frequency, alternating electrical fields to the tumor. Alternating electrical fields inhibit cell division (mitosis) in the tumor, potentially slowing or stopping tumor growth.

The device comprises two components: a portable electrical source (the electric field generator) and four large patches, each containing nine ceramic discs called transducer arrays. The patches form a cap-like device that is affixed to the patient’s scalp with adhesive. The electrical source can be plugged into a wall outlet or can run on batteries, giving patients the freedom to go about their daily activities. The FDA approved the system for the treatment of recurrent GBM in April 2011.

“We are still learning the appropriate role and timing for the NovoTTF-100A System in patients with recurrent GBM,” says John W. Henson, M.D., FAAN, a neuro-oncologist at the Ivy Center. “However, we see it as an important treatment option for patients who cannot undergo additional surgery or chemotherapy.”

Swedish Neuroscience Institute is one of the few centers in the United States whose clinical staff has been trained and certified in the use of this new system. It is also the only study location in the Northwest participating in a related clinical trial that is evaluating the use of the NovoTTF-100A System as treatment immediately after a patient is diagnosed with GBM. In this study, the system is used in addition to radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

More information about the NovoTTF-100A System is available at

About Swedish

Founded in 1910, Swedish is the largest non-profit health provider in the Greater Seattle area. It is comprised of five hospital campuses (First Hill, Cherry Hill, Ballard, Edmonds and Issaquah); ambulatory care centers in Redmond and Mill Creek; and Swedish Medical Group, a network of more than 100 primary-care and specialty clinics located throughout the Greater Puget Sound area. In addition to general medical and surgical care including robotic-assisted surgery, Swedish is known as a regional referral center, providing specialized treatment in areas such as cardiovascular care, cancer care, neuroscience, orthopedics, high-risk obstetrics, pediatric specialties, organ transplantation and clinical research. For more information, visit,, or

About Swedish Neuroscience Institute

In 2004, Swedish expanded its neuroscience services by establishing the Swedish Neuroscience Institute (SNI). Since then, a team of leading specialists has built a world-class institute dedicated solely to the treatment and advancement of neurological disorders for patients in the Pacific Northwest and from around the world. The specialists at SNI are dedicated to the treatment and research of neurological disorders. The institute is located at Swedish/Cherry Hill in Seattle and includes a team of neurologists, neurosurgeons and subspecialists who are focused on expanding access to critical neuroscience services and specialized treatments. SNI has made a commitment to ensuring quality outcomes by acquiring the most advanced technology and by participating in leading-edge research.

About the Ben and Catherine Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment

Opened in 2008, the Ben and Catherine Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment (Ivy Center) gives brain-tumor patients and their family’s access to a unique multidisciplinary team of skilled neurosurgeons, oncologists, radiologists, and a specialized nursing staff to deliver coordinated care and innovative treatments for both benign and malignant brain tumors. The Ivy Center’s unique design places its world-class research facility directly adjacent to the outpatient clinic, providing patients with immediate access to promising new therapies. As part of the Swedish Neuroscience Institute located in the Swedish/Cherry Hill Campus, the Ivy Center is the first brain tumor-specific, community-based facility of its kind in the Pacific Northwest and is providing new hope for patients with all stages of brain tumors, including brain cancer.

Dr. Davidzon Wins 2nd Annual SNMMI Award

With the support of The Ben and Catherine Ivy Foundation, Dr. Davidzon won the 2nd Annual SNMMI Award. There were 23 presentations in this contest, selected from more than 100 abstracts submitted from the United States and China.