Nov 25, 2016 1:00 AM

Author: Lisa Anderson

A Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature, Film Studies, and Italian does not cross one’s path every day. Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) patient Peter Bondanella holds that distinction. His credits include a list of about three dozen published original books and translations from the Italian and many illustrious awards and nominations.

When he and his wife, Julia, retired from Indiana State University, they wanted to resettle in an affordable place with a pleasant climate. “I wanted to be someplace without the things I hated about the weather in Indiana—too cold and too humid,” Peter says. The Bondanellas were introduced to St. George through a family connection, and they now live there.

Late in 2015, his doctor found a cyst on one of Peter’s kidneys in an ultrasound image and encouraged him to wait six months for another ultrasound. Simple kidney cysts often don’t cause problems, and the watch-and-wait approach helps avoid unnecessary treatment.

Peter wasn’t comfortable with watch-and-wait. “I said ‘I want a CT scan or an MRI or both—yesterday,’” he says. “I’d be dead now for sure if I hadn’t insisted.” As a result of those tests, Peter was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2016.

Peter’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law are cancer researchers at Stowers Cancer Institute at the University of Kansas, also a National Cancer Institute–designated Cancer Center, which puts it in the same circle of excellence as HCI. “When I got my diagnosis, my sister-in-law called the National Institutes of Health and talked to the head of oncological surgery—one of the guys who helps decide who gets to be an NCI–designated Cancer Center,” says Peter. “He told her that if he had relatives with cancer living in St. George, he would send them to HCI.”

So Peter came to HCI for treatment from the beginning. “Not that I didn’t think I could get good treatment in St. George,” he says. “But I couldn’t get clinical trials there.”

He is now in a trial pairing a new drug that works through the immune system with a chemotherapy combination approved for treating pancreatic cancer. “The immunotherapy drug unplugs an enzyme that the tumor makes to keep it hidden from my immune system,” he says.

“In preliminary studies, adding this immunotherapy raised the number of patients whose tumors shrank from 23% to 38%,” says Ignacio Garrido-Laguna, MD, the HCI medical oncologist on Peter’s cancer care team. “Patients have few side effects, so Peter was able to visit Italy this fall while his treatment continues.”

“Going to Italy was the best thing that’s happened since my diagnosis,” Peter says.

“I can’t imagine a better place to deal with my cancer than HCI,” he adds. Everyone knows my first name.”

Peter and Julia donated their extensive library to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Next April, his former graduate students from Indiana University are gathering “to do a little program in my honor,” Peter says. “Science keeps me going. I hope to be there.”

Lisa Anderson

Huntsman Cancer Institute

Sign Up for Weekly Health Updates

Get weekly emails of the latest news from HealthFeed.