Michael Funk is an entrepreneur. He likes to try new things. He starts companies and sells them – even owning radio stations once. He develops new technologies and then moves on to something else. For over 30 years that’s what he’s done, devoting obscenely long hours to the tasks at hand, until June 20, 2009 when a seizure stopped him in his tracks.
“I had come home from a business trip,” Mike says. “I was exercising at home—my son was there, home from college—when I had a seizure.”
Mike’s son Boyd didn’t know what was happening and immediately began CPR, even though Mike’s heart was actually just fine. “I thought I had some broken ribs after that,” Mike says.
Mike had an MRI at a local hospital near his home in Spokane. A small tumor was found, and his doctor thought it was a meningioma, cancer that arises from the meninges, the coverings of the brain and spinal cord. These are usually slow-growing cancers and can be one of three grades and surgery is usually the treatment used. The doctor recommended that it be watched and not do anything right away.
Mike took dilantin to avoid any more seizures, “but those hit me like six beers in the morning,” Mike says. “And I decided I didn’t want to wait and see, so I went to UW Medical Center to see Dr. Dan Silbergeld, who was recommended by a good friend who is also a physician at UW Medical Center.”
Well, the pea-sized tumor found on the initial MRI had grown in the few weeks that had passed. “Dr. Silbergeld removed it and I was off to the races,” Mike says. A week later he learned he didn’t have a meningioma, but a glioblastoma, the most common glioma accounting for over 50 percent of all brain cancers. It grows quickly and faster than low-grade astrocytomas and can invade nearby tissues.
Because Mike takes good care of himself, he was only in the hospital for a day and a half after surgery. “Then we went to visit our friends at Curlew Lake,” he says, not one to be kept down for too long.
“We’re all Cougars,” Mike says speaking of his family, “but if you have a medical problem, the University of Washington is where you go.”
After surgery, Mike began six weeks of chemotherapy under the care of Dr. Marc Chamberlain, medical oncologist at SCCA, and radiation treatment, which he was able to receive in Spokane. “Three days after treatment was complete, I went deer hunting in Montana,” Mike says.
To Mike, taking chemotherapy is all about playing a mind game. He started off taking temodar (an oral chemotherapy) every day and is now down to five days a month. “You either feel like you’re dying from cancer or you decide that you’re going to live with it,” he says.
Mike tried to go back to his normal course of business after surgery and the initial six weeks of therapy, but he found he couldn’t handle the time and travel he’d once put into his business. He had another seizure and decided it was time to slow down.
“Now I try to figure out what to do in retirement, and it’s kind of boring,” he says, “but it’s becoming easier. We do a lot of fishing.”
Mike is still involved in two different companies, but where they’ll go he’s unsure. “I have one goal,” he says. “Not to put my family through anymore crap and fight this cancer. Everything in life is a long shot, so you can't win without trying. I have been told that I'm ornery and stubborn, so I know I have a chance.”
Clinical Research Study
Dr. Chamberlain encouraged Mike to participate in a clinical research study of a new vaccine in December 2009. Dr. Maciej Mrugala, medical oncologist at SCCA is the primary investigator of this trial.
“The vaccine is administered once a month. It is an intradermal injection, usually given in the groin area as lymph nodes are in the proximity and this helps build an immune response,” Dr. Mrugala says.
The peptide in the vaccine has been engineered to attack brain cells expressing a molecule called EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) and specifically its mutant called vIII. Brain tumors (glioblastomas) expressing this molecule are more aggressive and associated with poorer prognosis. Giving a combination of the vaccine with the traditional cytotoxic therapy (in Mike’s case temozolomide) is thought to provide the optimal combination to fight the disease. Patients can continue on the vaccine indefinitely, that is for as long as the tumor is not growing and the patients don’t have side effects from the treatment.
“My cancer cells have the right protein to be in the study and I get MRIs every 60 days to watch for tumor growth,” Mike says. He receives five days of temodar in addition to the vaccine. To date, there are no visible signs of recurrence of his tumor.
After six months, chemotherapy becomes sort of a choice for patients. There is not enough data to show that temodar is beneficial after six months, so doctors often leave it up to patients to decide if they want to continue taking it.
“There’s not much in the way of side effects,” Mike says. “I mean, I could find some, but the disease is worse than the side effects, so I’m going to keep doing what has kept the disease in check so far. I’m a practical guy; the choice would seem simple regardless of the side effects.”