A retired fireman from California, and a patient of IU Health’s Dr. Milan Radovich has made it his mission to spread the word about the importance of gene sequencing and cancer treatment.
It was the weekend of the Indy 500 Mini Marathon when California resident Michael Balash and his wife Debbie wandered into Simon Cancer Center looking for the precision genomics wing. They didn’t know exactly what they were looking for on that Saturday afternoon, but as long as they were in Indianapolis, they decided to check out one of IU Health’s newest cancer units.
Balash, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in August 2016, still shakes his head at the chance meeting during that Mini Marathon Weekend. During his random visit to IU Health, Balash bumped into Dr. Milan Radovich, Vice President for Oncology Genomics at IU Health and a co-leader of the IU Health Precision Genomics program. The clinical program is dedicated to the integration of cutting-edge genomics – the care of patients with metastatic cancer.
That meeting resulted in a long-term commitment that spans more than 2,000 miles; long-distance consults; and additional face-to-face office visits. It extends well beyond Indiana and California. Balash has made it his mission to educate fellow firefighters about gene sequencing as an option for specialized treatment of cancer. He and his wife write about their experience and findings in a website: Cancerbeast.com. His vision is to have gene sequencing available as a standard of care for all cancer patients.
The website expands on that vision: “The gene sequencing process will lead to cancer breakthroughs – another tool in the cancer prevention and treatment toolbox. It is the future of all medical care,” they write.
Coming to IU Health is like coming home in a sense for Balash, 68. He and his wife grew up in northern Indiana – 30 miles outside of Chicago. They attended their senior prom together and graduated from East Chicago Roosevelt High School. Then they went their separate ways. Both married and had families of their own – Debbie has a daughter from her previous marriage; Michael has a son and daughter from his previous marriage.
Time went by, and another chance meeting. Debbie was working as a cardiac sonographer at a hospital where Michael’s dad was treated. When Michael’s dad passed, Debbie left her shift and, still dressed in her uniform, drove to the wake. She returned for the funeral the following day. That reunion resulted in a marriage that spans 14 years.
With ties to Indiana, they returned to Indianapolis to watch family members participate in the Mini Marathon. Michael also takes part in the annual FDIC, firefighters instructional conference – an event that brings about 34,000 firefighters to Indianapolis.
He wasn’t always a firefighter. Balash joined the Navy and was sent to California in January of 1972. He made that his new home and began work as an accountant. Some of his clients were firefighters and as he began listening to their stories of heroism, he thought that he’d like to join their ranks. So at the age of 34, he changed careers – one that he remained with for 24 years and served part of that time as an assistant chief with the Sacramento City Fire Department.
When a spot was found on his lung, Balash began researching the men and women in uniform touched by cancer. The results were astounding. According to his website one multi-year study conducted by The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of 30,000 firefighters from San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago indicates that firefighters have a higher rate of certain types of cancer than the general population.
The name “Cancer Beast” is a direct reference to the Chicago Fire Department’s description of fire. “You have many firefighters fighting the fire beast and now you have many firefighters fighting the cancer beast,” said Balash. Together with his wife, he has visited various fire departments including Cleveland, Chicago, and Noblesville advocating for cancer awareness and training. Their campaign has taken them to The National Cancer Community Summit in Washington, D.C. and next year they will travel to Spain to speak on the topic.
So, why the interest in gene sequencing?
“I believe there will come a day when cancer is not defined by a body part, but the genes in the mutation. A tumor may start one place but then spread to other parts of the body,” said Balash. “The more we know about gene sequencing, the better prepared we can be to advocate for specialized treatment options.”
The more they research, the more they share. Articles on cancerbeast.com include new developments such as blood-based testing to assess tumor mutation burden (TMB) that accurately identifies non-small cell lung cancer – a discovery that could lead to immunotherapy treatments. That’s hopeful news for Balash.
And even as they advocate for the care of fellow firefighters, Michael and Debbie Balash look to IU Health to help them navigate Michael’s treatment options.
“When our oncologist back home suggests a treatment option, we will call back here for advice and opinions,” said Debbie. “They are amazing here. They have what we need to stay on top of the latest clinical trials and recommendations. We are in good hands.”
— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.