‘NOVA” looks at Cuba’s battle against cancer

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A report by Rick Bentley for KGET.

George Keays was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2015. Doctors discovered eight metastasis in his chest, a brain tumor plus a primary and secondary lung tumor. Statistics show those with stage 4 lung cancer have between 2 and 13% chance of surviving for at least five years after diagnosis. Keays was told he had six to nine months to live.

He found a way to increase his odds by going to Cuba.

The new “NOVA” special, Cuba’s Cancer Cure,” scheduled to be broadcast at 9 p.m. April 1 on PBS, looks at how Keays and others have found help in the small country south of Florida. They are traveling there even though such a drastic move to fight the cancer means breaking the law.

Keays is not certain whether he will be arrested or fined after his story is told in the “NOVA” special. He decided to take the risk despite the law and the skeptic nature of his doctors.

“I’ve had oncologists who have, kind of, raised their eyebrow at it and said, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure that works.’ And then there’s also the definition of what ‘working’ means,” Keays says. “If people are expecting a complete cure, you’re never going to have cancer again, that’s not really the case.

“This thing slows the disease to a point where you can deal with it. And when you are terminal and you have stage 4 cancer, of course, you want to cure it, but that’s not available. So you look at whatever therapy you think can get you five months, six months, nine months.”

The reason Keays was not as skeptical as his doctors came through research. What he found in regards to what was happening in Cuba made a lot of sense to him and he was convinced that he had to do something different.

The reason Cuba has become a place of hope for those with cancer started when the United States put a trade embargo on Cuba. That left the country isolated from medical resources, so Cuban doctors were forced to get creative. Today, Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM) in Havana is one of the leading developers of cancer vaccines, treatments that are unavailable in the U.S. because of the long-held trade embargo.

The one-hour special looks at what Cuban doctors have created in terms of vaccines while also examining questions of accessibility and the political history of Cuba and the U.S. since the Cold War.

Llewellyn Smith, the writer and director of the special, was surprised to discover that not only have Cuban doctors been able to make advancements in the battle against cancer, but also that their work is being shared around the world.

“The biggest, sort of, eye opener, is that there’s an impression we have of Cuba as being fairly backward, fairly technologically, sort of, immature. But the rest of the world and I’m talking about other countries in South America, in Europe, and other places is very much aware of Cuban science and very respectful of that,” Smith says.

No insurance company will pay for a trip to Cuba for a cancer treatment. But, the cost for treatment in Cuba is approximately 5% of what it costs in the United States.

Dr. Kelvin Lee, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, says, “The challenge for immunotherapy in the U.S. is that it works and we are curing people, but it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars for treatment. And the Cubans realize this, so a lot of their strategy has been they are constrained economically. They are constrained by resources.

“So, they’ve been very innovative and clever on how they can work, do the same thing with a lot less. So, the cost for these kind of vaccines in Cuba is substantially less than the cost of immunotherapy in the United States.”

In an unprecedented move, Cuban researchers are working with U.S. partners to make the medicines more widely available.

The potential of consequences from breaking the law and the cost were not enough to stop Keays. He points out that when a person’s life is on the line, there is very little that will stop them from seeking help.

Keays adds,” I’ve been very, very lucky. I have cancer, but I feel very blessed to be in the position I’m in right now.  I don’t know where things are going. I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but I know, for now, this path is the right one for me to take.”

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