"Are you serious? You're at the wrong end!" That was Paula Klipsch's tongue-in-cheek response after her gynecologist said he was concerned about something he noticed at the front of her throat.
Her quip was characteristic of her swift sense of humor and unfaltering optimism. But this would be no laughing matter. Tests would later confirm thyroid cancer.
"I pulled over to the side of the road and cried," Klipsch (BA Communication '88) remembers. "I had five tumors in my neck; one of the five was wrapped around my vocal chords."
The diagnosis came just before she and her husband, current Purdue trustee Michael Klipsch, planned to go to Tampa, Florida, to see Purdue in the 2000 Outback Bowl. A Boilermaker through and through, Klipsch stated her firm priority: "I'm not having surgery until after the game!"
A tricky two-hour surgery removed Klipsch's one malignant tumor. She then swallowed a radioactive iodine pill to kill off any malignant cells the surgery might have missed. The pill required her to be isolated in her basement for a week until the radiation she was emitting no longer threatened others.
AN UNWELCOME REPRISE
The surgery and radiation paid off. Her tests were clean for years. But at the five-year point, a blood test revealed bad news. "It was off-the-charts elevated," Klipsch says of a cancer marker that turned up. A PET scan followed.
"It was a true holy s*** moment. I could tell by the radiologist's face that my neck was full. They wouldn't let me see the scan. I snuck a peek anyway, and saw all the white dots," she says.
There were now 20 tumors, and this time the surgery would take over five hours. Doctors also starved her system of iodine before she took the radioactive pill. Klipsch says the starvation set the stage for the pill to have a dramatic effect: "It hurt like a volcanic explosion in my neck. My neck was on fire for two days."
A HEALTHY PURSUIT
Now cancer-free for five years, Klipsch is one of the most vocal advocates for the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. A member of the PCCR Director's Advancement Board, she likes to point out that if the fluorescent dye that Purdue researcher Philip Low pioneered had been available for her first surgery, she might never have had a recurrence.
Low, the University’s Presidential Scholar for Drug Discovery and the Ralph C. Corley Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, invented an imaging agent that was first used in 2011 to light up malignant tissues during surgery on a patient with ovarian cancer. The agent, an intravenous molecular cancer "homing device" paired with a fluorescent dye, attaches to folate receptors on cancer cells and makes them glow. This helps surgeons see diseased cells that might otherwise go unnoticed and be left behind. "I call it magic juice," Klipsch says, smiling.
Low's innovations in imaging and therapies for both diagnosis and treatment also include a drug-delivery breakthrough that allows anti-cancer drugs to attack only diseased cells while leaving healthy cells untouched.
As far-reaching and potentially lifesaving as Low's work is, it merely scratches the surface of the center's research story, Klipsch says. A total of 110 PCCR-affiliated researchers are now answering cancer-related questions ranging from cell identity and signaling, to drug delivery and molecular sensing.
SHARING THE 'SECRET'
Klipsch, of Carmel, Indiana, is emphatic about the need for more people to know, understand and support the PCCR's cancer-fighting work.
"I call the Purdue Center for Cancer Research the best-kept secret," she says. "As a board member for the cancer center, we are working hard to make sure that PCCR is no longer the best-kept secret. Purdue researchers are among the top. The last time I checked, they had 40 drugs in development and 14 drugs in clinical trials.
"It really is a compelling message. I believe Purdue is going to be known for cancer research."