UCSF-Washington Cancer Center provides hope for Bay Area grandmother with incurable cancer
by Robert Dicks | October 5, 2017
(Fremont, Calif.) – “Sachi is a remarkable person,” said UCSF cancer specialist Jeffrey Wolf, MD. “She understands that her cancer will just keep coming back, but she always remains optimistic and upbeat.”
Wolf is discussing the medical journey of Sachi Churilo of Pleasanton, Calif. Since her diagnosis of multiple myeloma in 2008, Churilo is thrilled to have beaten the odds on survival – and considers the new UCSF – Washington Cancer Center in Fremont, Calif., essential to her ongoing health.
“Having a community physician collaborate with a major academic center is a unique relationship that really works.”Jeffrey Wolf, MD
“I wouldn’t be here without Dr. Wolf at UCSF and Dr. Bogdan Eftimie at the Cancer Center,” said Sachi, a cheerful grandmother of 3 and ex-realtor who’s making plans for her 50th wedding anniversary next Valentine’s Day. “They’re a wonderful team that truly partners on my care. I am so blessed to have them fighting for me, and that’s why I continue to survive.”
Wolf, who directs the Steve and Nancy Grand Multiple Myeloma Program at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center in San Francisco, has been a long-time collaborator on Sachi’s care with Eftimie, co-medical director along with David Lee, MD, at the UCSF – Washington Cancer Center. “She’s an amazing and inspiring woman who’s been at death’s door numerous times,” Eftimie said.
The program at Washington Hospital, which opened this past January, creates a highly coordinated medical oncology network for patients receiving care locally, and facilitates referring and transferring patients to UCSF when needed. “For patients like Sachi,” said Eftimie, “we’re providing increased access to highly specialized cancer services and specialists that weren’t previously available in the local communities.”
“Dr. Eftimie and Dr. Lee can provide in Fremont most of the therapies Sachi would receive here at UCSF,” Wolf said. “Having a community physician collaborate with a major academic center is a unique relationship that really works.”
Diagnosis: an incurable cancer
Sachi’s near decade of battling multiple myeloma started with, well, just feeling badly all over. “I felt poorly for months and my doctors were puzzled,” she recalled. “Finally, a local emergency room doctor in Pleasanton ordered blood tests on one of my many visits there. That’s when the cancer was found.”
The shock led Sachi and family to seek Wolf, professor of clinical medicine at UCSF and one of the world’s foremost authorities and researchers on the disease.
“Healthy plasma cells are found in bone marrow and are key to a functioning immune system,” explained Wolf. “Plasma cells work by making antibodies that protect the body from bacteria, viruses and fungi. But multiple myeloma means that Sachi’s plasma cells were cancerous, thus making many cells just like themselves and causing damage to her body. The result was a weakening of her immune system, bone fractures, kidney damage and anemia. Her skeleton was being destroyed.”
Wolf told Sachi she was Stage 3 – the most advanced stage of the disease. He immediately started an aggressive treatment plan that included chemotherapy, radiation, periodic blood and platelet transfusions and, when appropriate, participation in clinical trials.
“I was driven to get well,” said Sachi, “regardless of the odds.”
Those odds can be tough. “This type of cancer constantly mutates through sub-clones and just keeps popping up,” Wolf explained. “It requires constant attention, and that means that we have to keep adjusting our game plan.”
Thankfully, the UCSF program is part of a network of major academic and research centers that offer emerging treatments before they are widely known. “We are always first in Northern California with the latest ways to help patients,” said Wolf, who co-leads the program with Thomas Martin, MD, with whom he works to develop therapies in their UCSF lab. “We’re in touch with all the research in the world.”
Much of the research has been around the effectiveness of different chemotherapy and targeted drug combinations. This knowledge has allowed Wolf to successfully modify Sachi’s treatments each time the cancer returns. “Whenever her cancer starts growing again,” said Wolf, “we figure out how to hit it with something else.”
The most advanced treatment recommended by Wolf occurred in 2010, after Sachi’s cancer returned and caused a spine compression fracture – she underwent an autologous stem cell transplant, an extremely difficult procedure that only a major center like UCSF can provide.
“The transplant was hard,” Sachi recalled. “I was in the hospital for 27 days, but the care was remarkable. The transplant was so effective that I didn't even need chemotherapy for 16 months.” However, the cancer eventually came back, and Wolf had to design a new treatment regimen. Sachi received another stem cell transplant in 2015.
The community connection
In 2012, four years into the disease, Sachi was looking for a top community oncologist to regularly manage and coordinate UCSF’s overarching plan. She interviewed Eftimie, who had a local office in Fremont. “I decided right away that he was perfect,” Sachi said. “He treats me like I’m the only person he is taking care of, and I’ve been seeing him ever since.”
Sachi was thrilled to follow Eftimie when he became co-medical director, along with Lee, of the UCSF – Washington Cancer Center in Fremont earlier this year. Wolf, Eftimie and Lee are all part of UCSF Health, which ranks among the top five hospitals nationwide and No. 1 on the West Coast. It is also among the top 10 nationwide for cancer care. The oncology affiliation, which provides both inpatient and outpatient care, furthers a strong relationship that began in 2013.That’s when Washington Hospital initiated a program to provide local access to a number of UCSF premier medical specialties, including neonatal intensive care, cardiac surgery and several pediatric specialties.
“We’re able to follow Sachi on a local level to manage her ongoing therapies, and in conjunction with the plan at UCSF,” said Eftimie, who regularly consults with Wolf. Sachi visits the team in Fremont weekly for various treatments, including chemotherapy infusions at the Sandy Amos, RN, Infusion Center, a “wonderful team,” Sachi said. She goes to San Francisco to meet with Wolf every two to three months.
“Everyone is so good to me,” said Sachi, “and I am so, so grateful for the care.”
Today, and the future
In late July, Sachi’s cancer returned, and she was hospitalized at Washington Hospital. Once again, Wolf had to design a new combination of chemotherapies to attack the relapse. “I know the chance of recurrence is always there,” said Sachi, “and that there is no cure.”
During recovery, Sachi is keeping her usual sunny outlook and gradually returning to her regular routine – dancing, tending the garden, visiting children and grandkids and, of course, planning that golden anniversary with husband Carl. She did say that some of her treatments bring an inability to sleep, along with unpleasant side effects.
“Regardless of what happens, cancer has taught me so much about life,” said Sachi, who is thankful to the many friends who have donated blood and platelets on her behalf, thus saving the lives of many. “Cancer has brought me a renewed passion for helping others, and this brings me great pleasure.”
As Wolf said, she is one of the most unforgettably optimistic and upbeat patients ever.
“I am truly blessed,” said Sachi, who marks 10 years with the disease next summer. “I’m surrounded by a beautiful family, a loving husband, and two of the best oncologists in the world. Life is very, very good, and I am filled with thanks.”