cancer cells

Toronto mayor Rob Ford, who made headlines last year for his erratic behavior, is in the spotlight again. The 45-year old mayor was recently diagnosed with liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer that takes root in the body’s fat cells.

A biopsy showed that Ford’s cancer is aggressive and had spread from his abdomen to other parts of his body. The tumor itself measured 5 inches by 5 inches. In light of his diagnosis, Ford dropped out of the 2014 Toronto Mayoral election to pursue treatment.

Ford’s regimen of treatment will consist of two rounds of chemotherapy. On September 19, Ford began his first three-day course of chemo. It will be followed by an 18-day rest period before restarting the cycle.

Ford is staying in the hospital until his doctors can properly evaluate his response to the treatment before releasing him. Ford’s response to his chemo treatments will dictate whether or not he will pursue surgical removal of the tumors or radiation, as well.

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What is Liposarcoma?

Liposarcoma is a very rare and malignant form of cancer that originates in the body’s fatty tissues. These tumors typically begin to develop in the thigh, behind the knee, or the abdomen. Instances of this disease account for less than 1 percent of all cancer diagnoses.

There are liposarcomas, including :

  • Well-differentiated
  • Dedifferentiated
  • Myxoid (or round cell)
  • Pleomorphic

Ford has pleomorphic liposarcoma, which means that the cancer cells within the tumor vary in size and shape.

According to Hussein Tawbi, MD, PhD, co-leader of the Sarcoma Program at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), individuals with liposarcoma don’t usually find out they have this particular type of cancer until it has grown rather large, especially in the abdomen. Most people with the disease don’t feel sick, and if the tumor is in the extremities, patients may only notice the formation of a painless, hard or soft lump that starts increasing in size. Dr. Tawbi says that while the tumor itself rarely causes pain it may press on other organs or nerves, which produces symptoms. This is one of the reasons that tumors in the abdomen can grow to significantly large proportions before being detected.

“A physical exam, followed by imaging tests and biopsy of this lump typically reveals if it is liposarcoma,” explains Dr. Tawbi. “It is then extremely important to determine which type the disease is, as the behavior can vary widely from indolent, slow growing to aggressive, and as in Ford’s case, metastatic disease.”

Chemotherapy and radiation can help improve the chances of a cure, but Dr. Tawbi says that surgery is typically the only curative option. “When the disease has already spread, cures are rare unless all tumors can be resected. Immunotherapy with so-called checkpoint inhibitors (anti-PD-1 antibodies) is being investigated in this setting, as it is one of the most promising therapies in cancer.” National efforts to introduce anti-PD-1 antibodies into the methods of sarcoma therapy are being led out of UPCI.

What is the Prognosis for Pleomorphic Liposarcoma?

Treatment for the disease usually includes either chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, or a combination of such treatments. The five-year survival rate for individuals diagnosed with this type of cancer is 56 percent. The 10-year survival rate drops to 39 percent for those with the condition.

Ford’s doctors are optimistic about his condition, despite the difficult road ahead. While he dropped out of the 2014 Mayoral race (his brother Doug is campaigning to replace him), Ford has registered to run for district councilor in Etobicoke, Ontario.

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