Running on Full
Charles Peacock Is Fascinated by the New and Unexpected, Even When It Shows Up in the Form of Brain Cancer
Charles Peacock is a writer and traveler at heart.
He has lived in Paris and Copenhagen. He loves to visit friends in other European cities and elsewhere around the world. He thrives on changing perspectives, climbing mountains in Switzerland or in America's national parks.
"I judge my days by how interesting or unusual they are. Traveling and being in a new place is the best feeling there is" he said.
But the 39-year-old screenwriter said one trip stands out for the way his life changed.
A dull headache had dragged on for weeks before his flight to Hong Kong in early 2012. Peacock began to experience odd déjà vu sensations, and he passed out twice. At his destination, with symptoms getting worse instead of better, he underwent an MRI. Doctors detected and surgically removed a glioblastoma multiforme, or GBM, the most aggressive brain tumor there is.
"For me" he said, "having brain cancer surgery in Hong Kong – and it's not a stretch for me to say this – it was one of the best trips I've ever had in my life. It was just wild – nonstop fascinating and insane and hilarious. … The whole thing, having brain cancer in general, has made my life more interesting, not less, and more exciting, not less."
Back home in Los Angeles, Peacock consulted brain cancer specialists at two world-renowned centers and decided to continue his treatment at Cedars-Sinai with neuro-oncologist Jethro Hu, MD. He started chemotherapy, underwent focused radiation therapy – riding his motorcycle to visits – and participated in a clinical trial of an anticancer vaccine called ICT-107. The experimental therapy is designed to help the immune system recognize and attack recurring cancer cells.
GBMs are notorious for growing back. Any cells left behind after surgery can regenerate and even migrate to other areas of the brain. Peacock's Hong Kong surgeon intentionally left a small amount of tumor that was dangerously close to vital brain structures. When it started to regrow soon after Peacock returned to LA, Cedars-Sinai neurosurgeon Chirag Patil, MD, program director of the Neurosurgery Residency, took it out.
Follow-up MRIs were clear – until the spring of 2014, when the cancer returned and Patil again removed the new growth.
"It's pretty great that someone can put their hands inside your brain and take billions of cancer cells out and leave you able to walk and talk. That's the closest thing we have to magic" said Peacock, adding that consulting with the doctors seems more like chatting with friends.
"I love both of those guys, and it's wild because they're pretty much the same age as me. I'm really interested in the science of what they're doing, and I enjoy talking to them about it. It's a really exciting type of oncology because it's so tough, but that attracts a lot of the smartest guys, and there's a lot that's changing very quickly" he said. "It's nice to have a personal relationship with people who are so important to your survival."
Peacock's youth is on his side: Younger age has been linked to a stronger immune system and a better chance of longer survival. Most GBMs occur in middle age or later. Peacock also is in good physical condition – plenty strong enough to run four miles to the hospital the morning of brain surgery, as he did last June. Two weeks post-surgery, he was on a flight to Amsterdam to see friends.
He said he hopes he's still early in his journey, but in any case, has dedicated his life to "repaying the world" for having gotten him this far. To that end, Peacock wants to create a movie with its proceeds going to help cancer research and support programs.
Although glioblastomas are not considered curable, Patil and Hu approach Peacock's case as a long-term, potentially lethal condition that requires vigilance – MRIs every two months for now – and aggressive treatment if and when it returns.
"At any other time and place in history, I wouldn't be alive. And it's hard for me not to have that be the first thing I see when I think about having brain cancer" he said. "There are a lot of other people in the world right now who would die of this immediately. The fact that I'm alive at all is almost ridiculously lucky. Living down the street from Cedars-Sinai is just one very small part of how lucky I've been."