A Man I Call ‘Dr. Evil’...Who Is Anything But!

I was at a stage in my life where I had to be fearlessly and relentlessly true to myself.  I barely knew what the pancreas did when I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006.  I was overcome with shock, fear and so many unanswered questions...what do I do next?  These emotions consumed every part of my being.  Overwhelmed and terrified does not begin to describe what I was feeling.

Immediately after my diagnosis, I interviewed different oncologists and Dr. William Isacoff was the second doctor I met in a matter of days.  He was highly recommended and practicing at UCLA at the time, which was minutes from my home.  As with any huge decision like this, we can accumulate mountains of information making the task even more challenging.  I did not have the luxury of time and have always trusted my instincts.  Knowing this decision was not written in stone, and after a 2 hour conversation, I felt comfortable and confidant I was making the right decision in trusting my life to this doctor.

Leaving his office, I reflected back on Dr. Isacoff's touching earnestness, sharp wit and profound intelligence which reinforced that this was where I needed to be right now. He and his very capable, kind, and attentive staff were a reliable, trustworthy presence in an otherwise tentative and unpredictable experience. Cancer doctors, per se, traditionally follow cancer guidelines.  He personally feels the standard of care guidelines (published in the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network) are not effective, and as a result, does not use them.  In his opinion, what is recommended in these guidelines, the highest possible dose used infrequently, are of no benefit to the patient.  His belief, 3, 4 or 5 drugs administered, as often as possible, using a much lower dose is the only way to effectively treat a cancer patient.  This differs from what is currently recommended as standard of care.  There are many oncologists who are worried about how many drugs can be used at one time and what the patients can tolerate.  His theory of prescribing a lower dose of multiple drugs with the least possible side effects has proven successful in many patients.

 Laurie MacCaskill & Dr. Isacoff at a PanCAN Research Award Dinner in Laurie’s Honor

Laurie MacCaskill & Dr. Isacoff at a PanCAN Research Award Dinner in Laurie’s Honor

Over the course of my years of cancer treatment with Dr. Isacoff, I have interviewed other doctors.  I would leave the meetings with a better understanding of the diverse thinking and varied approaches adopted by these oncologists.  This confirmed my belief, that despite differences I encountered with him (and there were many!), I remained confident that I was making the right decision being in his care.  He characterized gentleness and managed to tie together strength, kindness and goodness which has garnered widespread respect, admiration and gratitude by patients and their families.

In 2013 and 2015, I attended 2 dinners where Dr. Isacoff has invited patients who are 3+ year survivors of pancreatic cancer and have benefited from his protocol.  Over 20 cancer survivors were at each dinner, which is inspiring and for me, a validation of the significant work he performs on a daily basis.  I have enormous gratitude, appreciation, respect and admiration for Dr. Isacoff.  His passion, dedication, devotion and ability to care for so many, is incomprehensible.  He also has a sense of humor which, in light of this situation, can make a big difference.

I remember one treatment session I was not in a private room, rather in a large area with multiple reclining chairs where many patients receive the IV treatment for hours at a time.  The thought of toxic drugs being pumped into my body for hours at a time was not an overwhelming thought, I just really just felt miserable. Exhaustion settled in, I was emotionally vulnerable and every part of my body hurt.  I was hooked up to the IV with my Blackberry on my lap, pecking away a message to a girlfriend.  Dr. Isacoff sat on a small stool, facing me, checking my vitals.  He pointed to the (very small) screen on my phone, which was not facing his direction and asked, "Who is that?"  I looked down and could not believe he could read my text, upside down (another one of his many talents!), and was horrified to know that I was caught!  I was venting to a girlfriend about reclining in a chair, exhausted, racked with pain, missing the old me, receiving toxic drugs from ‘Dr. Evil.’  He stood and asked again, “Who is that?”  Then he turned around without waiting for my response and walked out of the room.  I was horrified realizing that he read what I had written and still couldn’t believe he could accurately read this small text upside down!  While he usually gives me the prescriptions, he had his nurse hand me the slip.  Reading his instructions, I had to laugh.  At the bottom, his signature read, Dr. Evil M.D.! Over the years, a few patients tell me he has shared this story and my nickname for him, so I think, secretly, he is smiling!  

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As I reflect on the many years of discussions that now seem impossible to have or comprehend, I understand the intensity exhibited in an effort to care for and protect each and every patient.  Dr. Isacoff is calm, measured, and deliberate with his delivery of information that is not always easy to hear.  His fiery determination is in an effort to enhance the quality of life and improve cancer survival outcomes for his patients.  There are subtleties and a depth to his caring and compassion.  It amazes me how people in this profession are able to stay buoyant in an otherwise flattening process.

I have enormous gratitude, appreciation, respect and admiration for Dr. Isacoff.  His passion, dedication, devotion and ability to care for so many, is incomprehensible.  He was the controller of my fate and I am eternally grateful.