Bryce Olson
2018 Conference Patient Story

Sequence me! How one person turned to precision medicine to fight advanced cancer

Had Bryce Olson simply followed his medical team’s advice, chances are he would not be able to share his story at What’s the Fix? on May 17. Diagnosed with aggressive stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer in early 2014, his doctors said that his cancer was one of the most aggressive they’d ever treated at OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, a highly regarded research and academic center. Olson was only 44 years old with a young family and successful career, and, like most newly diagnosed patients, he wanted more than anything to get better. So, he began following doctor’s orders precisely.

“I did what doctors told me to – it was a process of cut, burn, poison, starve,” explains Bryce. “The chemo was awful, but I was told it would mean extended survival. In the end though, I paid for nine months of remission with six months of chemo-induced sickness, which included blistering mouth sores, epic fatigue and neuropathy in my feet that I still have today. And ultimately it didn’t work – I burned through the standard of care quickly.”

Feeling like he was out of options, Bryce began to lose hope. In 2015, he returned from medical leave and went back to work at Intel, where he’d worked as a marketer for 15 years. It was then, he recalls, that he came to terms with his mortality and decided he would do something to make a positive impact for other advanced cancer patients.

“When I got back to work, I learned about a group at Intel that was working on precision medicine and genomic sequencing,” he says. “I talked my way into a new job on that team and discovering what they were doing – and what was possible – was mind blowing.”

According to Bryce, advancements in precision medicine have transformed the process of uncovering molecular abnormalities fueling a person’s disease, ultimately directing that person toward targeted and less toxic treatments. Science and technology have evolved so much, in fact, that the genome sequencing that took 10 years and $2.7 billion back in 2003 can now be cranked out within a day for $1,000 using high throughput and high-volume sequencing instruments from companies like Illumina.

The high-performance computing clusters that take that genetic data and apply bioinformatics have also been evolving. So much so that Bryce estimates clinically significant mutations can be identified in a person’s tumor more than 50 percent of the time. This information opens the door to new exploratory treatment options for patients that simply didn’t exist five years ago.

“Honestly, learning about precision medicine really pissed me off because no one was doing it for me,” admits Bryce. “If you’re an advanced cancer patient who isn’t getting their cancer profiled molecularly, you’re flying blind. I went straight to the head of the pathology group at my hospital and said, ‘why can’t you do this for me?’ He was receptive and a change agent. He wanted to push the traditional standard of care and get precision medicine adopted among oncologists.”

This is just the beginning of Bryce’s story, which includes a project that uses music to raise awareness for this new way to fight cancer called FACTS (Fighting Advanced Cancer Through Songs). In 2017, Bryce and his band of musicians and singers, some of whom are also cancer patients, released a rock-n-roll album at SXSW and have raised $40,000 for precision oncology research. He’s excited to tell all on May 17.

As part of his mission to educate and empower others, here are three tips from Bryce for advanced cancer patients:

  1. Demand genetic sequencing. Demand it of your oncologist and if they are not receptive, bounce somewhere else. Tell them you want to know what’s fueling your disease in your DNA. If your insurance denies it, raise a stink. The biggest problem isn’t getting declined, it’s not asking.
  2. Don’t wait for clinical trials as a last resort. That’s where all the new stuff is and where the best personalized medicine is being developed.
  3. Don’t lose hope. A lot of advanced cancer patients feel like a lost cause. Median survival stats are based off old ways of treating people. Today we can fight cancer differently and you can change your course.

Register for free to participate in What’s the Fix? on May 17.