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Steven West's own struggles with a rare form of cancer has led to him being invited to sit on two peer review panels that evaluate applications for cancer research.

OSU instructor Steven West conquers cancer and helps the government evaluate medical research

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Media Contact: Terry Tush | Director, Marketing and Communications | 405-744-2703 | terry.tush@okstate.edu

Six years ago, Steven West was diagnosed with a rare cancer of the bile ducts in his liver. But it wasn’t as simple as that sounds.

His cancer was originally misdiagnosed twice. West then delved into researching into his illness, including learning to read his imaging scans, and persuading his doctors to do a biopsy.

“I diagnosed myself, but it took a 5½-month odyssey to convince my doctors to do a biopsy,” said West, who had a softball-size tumor removed from his liver.

West is an instructor of professional practice for the OSU School of Hospitality and Tourism Management and a former assistant director of University Dining Services. He has more than 20 years of experience working in the hospitality industry and teaching in colleges and universities around the world.

His research and experience advocating for his own care gave him first-hand knowledge about what patients and their families face when confronting cancer. West’s own struggle with the rare cancer cholangiocarcinoma led him to be invited to sit on two peer review panels that evaluate applications for cancer research funding through the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP). As a consumer reviewer on the panels, West joins scientists and doctors who consider the merits of applications for millions of dollars.

Billions are spent annually to fund cancer research in the U.S., with the largest amount coming from the federal government. That public investment goes to thousands of research grants awarded to scientists who study the prevention, causes and therapies for hundreds of different types of cancers. To ensure research dollars are spent wisely, funding agencies like the CDMRP follow rigorous grant application and peer review methods involving many of the nation’s top scientists and doctors. The CDMRP also nominates ordinary individuals impacted by illnesses to participate in research review panels as consumer advocates.

“We’re (consumer reviewers) included to give the patient’s perspective of what the impact could be of potential research on patients and families,” West said. “Discussions are very interesting but sometimes the scientists get so bogged down in the minutiae of scientific reasoning, they forget that it’s actually impacting an individual.”

The CDMRP operates through the Department of Defense to fund biomedical research in more than three dozen areas including cancer. West sits on two cancer research review panels. As a cancer survivor and with his involvement with the Global Liver Institute and the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation, West was first nominated to serve on CDMRP’s Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program. That led to his being nominated by the Global Liver Institute to sit on the Rare Cancers Research Program, where last year he helped decide how $7.5 million would be spent this year to study cancers with an incidence of fewer than six cases per 100,000 people each year. Rare cancers are of particular interest to West because of his diagnosis with cholangiocarcinoma.

According to the Rare Cancers Research Program, around 200 forms of cancer are defined as rare and compose around 25 percent of all U.S. cancers diagnosed, affecting more than 400,000 Americans each year. Their rarity often means less research has been conducted, resulting in a lack of knowledge and more difficulty with early detection, diagnosis and treatment. West’s own experience is a prime example.

“Cholangiocarcinoma is one of the silent cancers that you usually never know you have until it’s too late,” West said. “In my case, I saw a doctor for a kidney stone, and they saw a tumor in my liver on the imaging. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known about it. I’m an anomaly that I survived because 90 percent of the people who get my cancer die.”

Even though the tumor was the size of a softball, the cancer was confined to the liver. Surgeons at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston removed about 75 percent of West’s liver, which, fortunately, is an organ that regenerates itself. West said that he is an anomaly not only because of the early detection of his cancer, but also because recently his cancer returned. Last year, his doctors discovered another tumor in the lining of his abdominal wall, which may have grown from a single cancer cell left behind from the first surgery. The new tumor was also removed, and West is once again cancer-free.

Rare cancers face a lack of research funding compared to more prevalent cancers like lung and breast cancer because of much broader awareness and the numbers of people affected.

“That’s understandable because more people have them, but the rare cancers need a little attention, too, particularly now that we’re learning so much more about genetics,” West said.

Much of the studies surrounding cancer therapies today focus on genetic mutations that dictate the specific drug treatments that are most effective for particular cancers, West said.

“Over the coming years, when you have breast cancer or brain cancer or colon cancer, doctors are going to do next-generation gene sequencing to figure out what mutation you have, and we’re going to have a drug designed to work on that,” he said.

West said that participating in research review panels has offered him a chance to use his own personal experience to help make development of next-generation therapies possible by funding studies now that will help people in the future.

“Being involved makes me hopeful that what I’m doing helps other people and families whose lives will be made a little easier,” he said. “What little bit I can do kicks the can further down the road and helps other families.”

West is glad to be living again in his native Oklahoma and working in the industry he loves. He began his 20-year career in the hospitality industry working for hotels and resorts in Colorado before moving to Switzerland in 1996 to become a lecturer at the International Hotel and Tourism Training Institute in Neuchâtel. He also taught at hotel and hospitality management schools in Australia, New Zealand, Cambodia and Africa. In 2010, West returned to Oklahoma to work for OSU’s Atherton Hotel.

Returning to Oklahoma to teach at OSU’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management allowed West to be closer to his family, including his father who grew up in Perkins and is an OSU College of Business Administration graduate. His mother studied education at OSU and became a teacher. His father has childhood memories of meeting Frank Eaton, also known as Pistol Pete.

“It’s funny: As a youngster I just wanted to get out of Oklahoma, but as an adult I wanted to get back.”

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