By Marion Filler
Dr. Angela Alistar of Morristown Medical Center is developing a promising drug treatment for pancreatic cancer.
But she also thinks lifestyle changes and diligent screening can be powerful allies in the battle against this scourge.
“In my 10 years of oncology I have not seen a vegan with cancer,” Alistar, 43, told the Morristown Women in Business this month at the organization’s networking luncheon at the Grand Café.
“I have reduced dramatically the amount of animal-based products and increased the amount of plant based food in my diet. It reduces your risk for everything including cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer,” said Alistar, director of gastrointestinal medical oncology and of the Phase One Breakthrough Treatment Center soon to open at Morristown Medical Center.
Acknowledging this is an “emotional subject,” and not everyone wants to be a vegetarian, Alistar suggested a Mediterranean diet and a conscious effort to eat more fruits and vegetables as steps in the right direction.
She also advocates getting colonoscopies starting at age 45, and maybe endoscopies, too,
November is Pancreatic Awareness Month, and Alistar gave reasons for optimism in her hour-long talk, titled Pancreatic Cancer is Not Invincible.
It’s a disease badly in need of some hope.
According to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research, nearly 46,000 Americans will succumb this year to pancreatic cancer, which has surpassed breast cancer as the third most-deadly cancer in the United States.
It’s hard to detect in its early stages, and survival rates have not improved much over the last 40 years. Only 9 percent of patients live more than five years past their diagnosis, the foundation says.
“The reason I do Phase One clinical studies is because I think that’s where the future is,” Alistar explained. Far from using studies as a last resort merely to boost quality of life when other treatments have failed, Alistar believes in putting clinical trials up front.
“My advice is, if you are seeing a doctor who is not offering clinical trials, you are seeing the wrong doctor.”
Alistar has developed a combination of two drugs that work together to attack tumors by inhibiting their metabolism. A novel agent, CPI -613, has shown some impressive results in combination with chemotherapy, she said.
This therapy is running in 125 clinical trials under the auspices of Rafael Pharmaceuticals in Cranbury.Half the patients have doubled their survival rate, Alistair said.
Her aggressive approach to fighting cancer is a reflection of her life.
“I’m very much a risk-taker,” said the Romanian immigrant.
“I felt that Romania didn’t give me the opportunities I wanted and I never felt that I really belonged there – it was too restrictive, a communist country,” Alistar said.
After medical school in Romania, she came alone to the U.S and did her residency at Englewood Hospital, followed by rotations at Mt. Sinai that led to a fellowship in hematology and oncology.
“Then I went to Wake Forest in North Carolina for five years as a gastrointestinal oncology program developer. I came back to New Jersey to develop the same kind of program here at Morristown Medical Center in gastrointestinal tumors and early phase studies,” said Alistar, who married an American and is the mother of two boys, ages 8 and 11.
Catching symptoms early is indeed difficult. Yet it’s crucial to pay attention to subtle changes in your body, she emphasized.
“We can all do things to decrease our risk,” Alistar said. “All of us have a moody gastrointestinal system, but the medical community and patients do not really approach it with more care. If you have gastric symptoms lasting more than two months, maybe you should demand an evaluation.”
Alistar is determined to find a cure for pancreatic cancer– a challenge a fellow researcher once compared to landing on the moon.
“He captured the immensity of the project,” she said. “But I believe that if we put our heads together and work in a cooperative fashion, we are going to land on the moon again.”