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By Tracy Ahrens

Alicia Almanza was 18 when a dentist spotted a small tumor in the roof of her mouth. A single mother of a newborn, Alicia learned that the mass was cancer and had it surgically removed.

Sharp pains in her left cheek struck six years later, leading to a diagnosis of cancer in her sinus cavity. Alicia underwent surgery to remove part of her jaw and cheekbone.

This time, the mass was labeled as adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC). The slow-growing, rare cancer mainly strikes the head and neck areas, occurs mostly in women, is usually diagnosed when people are in their 40s to 60s and has no known treatment.

According to the Illinois State Cancer Registry, between 2003 and 2007, merely 225 cases of ACC were reported in Illinois. About 5,000 people have it in the United States.

Most patients survive for five years after initial surgery, only to have tumors recur, usually in the lungs and liver. Alicia, now 37, is no exception.

Three years ago, she underwent a CAT scan and learned that multiple masses exist in her lungs. Alicia told her daughter, Courtney, then 15, that nothing could be done.

“She told me ‘We have to do something,’” Alicia said. Courtney suggested starting an organization to raise funds for ACC research. With the help of friends and relatives, they formed a non-profit organization called Attack ACC.

This August, the Homer Glen residents will host their fourth annual fund-raising run/walk at Hickory Creek Junction Preserve in Mokena. To date, through a variety of fund-raising efforts, the organization has donated $67,500 to the University of Virginia Cancer Center in Charlottesville, the primary facility in the U.S. dedicated to ACC research.

Investigating this cancer for the past 10 years is Christopher Moskaluk M.D., Professor of the Departments of Pathology, Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at the University of Virginia.

“I’m appreciative of the work that Attack ACC has done to help financially support my research and allow me to have colleagues who are helping to fight this disease,” Dr. Moskaluk said.

He has discovered a specific protein that signals ACC tumor cells to replicate.

“A number of drugs are now being developed to shut down this protein,” Moskaluk said. “If so, we could help slow down, or possibly stop the replication of ACC tumor cells. We are in negotiations to sponsor a clinical drug trial hopefully by the end of this year.”

Currently, the only way to fight ACC is to keep it in check with CAT scans and treat tumors with radiation or surgical removal.

In August of 2009, Alicia had a tumor removed from her cervical spine. In January of this year, she underwent radiation to shrink a large mass in her left lung. In April she finished eight weeks of proton radiation treatments to further shrink the spinal tumor.

“What I’m going through is hard,” Alicia said. “Attack ACC has been therapeutic for me. Through it, I’ve met so many wonderful people. Having this disease has opened my eyes to life. It has taught me patience and to be even more sympathetic to others.”

*** For information on Attack ACC, see www.attackacc.org or e-mail attackacc@yahoo.com. Also see the Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Research Foundation at www.accrf.org

 



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