Pioneering Doctor Creating Legacy Curing "Incurable" Cancers
The world of conventional treatment for many cancers considered untreatable, is being turned upside down by a visionary radiologist who's spent his entire career innovating new ways to save lives.Dr. Gary Onik has cured hundreds of "hopeless' patients over the past 30 years using a technique he invented, refined and has taught to doctors around the world called 'tumor ablation" Tumor ablation is particularly useful in treating prostate, liver, skin, lung, pancreatic breast cancer and cancers of the head and neck.
Heat, freezing or an electric current is applied to the tumor, which causes the tumor to die without destroying the surrounding tissue. The treated tumor, left inside the body, is gradually resorbed by the body's natural healing process. In some instances, when cold is used, the treated tumor acts like a patient's own cancer vaccine creating antibodies which prevent or even treat metastasis. Dr. Onik, who practices in Aventura, Florida and is a professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University has been called "the most innovative cancer specialist in the country, "a Renaissance man," a virtuoso" and, by many of his grateful patients who are cancer-free, "Dr. Hope"
Dr. Onik is credited with pioneering a new field in medicine known as "interventional oncology" His work has been published in numerous peer reviewed journals, and he's won prestigious awards from the major medical societies for his groundbreaking approaches.
Read Dr. Onik's story and the stories of several people who are alive today thanks to his work.
The Story of Cancer's "Dr. Hope"
by Gwen Cardin
I'm sorry. There's nothing we can do. Go home and get your affairs in order. Oh, and good luck"
Those surrealistic words from her doctor pierced Marsha Sawyer's 33-year-old heart like a rusty dagger. She had now heard that sentiment, or similar ones, from doctors at three of North America's top cancer hospitals.
Metastatic cancer of the liver.
It was going to deprive her 12-week old and two-year old sons of their mother. With no chance of surgical removal of her tumors, it was clear this diagnosis was a death sentence.
The news wasn't any better for Joe Lee. Recurrence of his prostate cancer after radical prostatectomy, radiation, hormonal therapy and finally chemotherapy was ending in an 18 year failed battle. Chemotherapy brought him to his knees and weakened his immune system to the point that he was repeatedly admitted to the hospital with a string of life-threatening illnesses. With no hope of a cure, even if he continued chemo, he stopped his treatment and prepared to enter Hospice. He didn'tt want to live out his final days in chemotherapy-induced misery.
Jeannie Berry was facing a horrific choice, too. She had undergone surgery to remove a two centimeter squamous cell carcinoma on the floor of her mouth. Eight weeks later another tumor ominously appeared. That's when she was told that radiation had to be next. But at a terrible price. The process would leave her dependent on an IV feeding tube for at least a year and a half due to throat swelling. It would cause scarring so significant on her neck that she would have to undergo extensive plastic surgery and probably be unable to talk. Quality of life was important to her, so that option was no option at all. Plus the doctor told her that without treatment she would die a long, slow agonizing death.
What weaves the lives of these three people together besides having virtually "untreatable" cancer is that today each of them is cancer-free - in Marsha's case, cancer-free in 2015 for 27 years.
The Thread that Binds
The thread that binds them is a pioneering Florida radiologist named Gary Onik. Dr. Onik, nicknamed "Dr. Hope" by many of his grateful patients, is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of terminal cancer patients over the last three decades. His weapon? Tumor ablation â€“ a type of cancer treatment that he invented, refined and has taught to doctors around the world.
Tumor ablation, also known as image guided tumor ablation, employs imaging technology such as ultrasound or CT scan to guide and precisely target a specially-designed destructive probe into a tumor. Heat, freezing or an electric current is applied to the tumor, which causes the tumor to die without destroying the surrounding tissue. The treated tumor, left inside the body, is gradually resorbed by the body's natural healing process. In some instances, when cold is used, the treated tumor creates antibodies which prevent tumor recurrence in distant parts of the body (known as metastasis) or can actually treat metastasis that have already appeared .
By creatively devising a solution where there appeared to be none, Dr. Onik was able to solve a basic problem in cancer surgery, the "unresectable" tumor.
"An unresectable cancer is one that can't be surgically removed due to its location or proximity to vital structures which cannot be sacrificed," said Dr. Onik, who practices in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. "Generally, when chemotherapy and radiation won't reliably destroy the whole tumor and it can't be surgically removed, it becomes incurable. Tumor ablation changed everything by making it possible to safely destroy the entire tumor in such situations"
The First Person in the World
"It's hard to overestimate the impact Gary has had on the field of tumor ablation or the magnitude of his contribution to cancer treatment," said Fred Lee, Jr., M.D. Dr. Lee is Professor of Radiology and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
"He was the one person in the world, the first person in the world, who put together the fact that these devices could be delivered to just the right place, and whatever you did could be monitored with imaging. This new technology vastly improved treatment and decreased complications"
Dr. Allan Stam calls Dr. Onik "the most innovative cancer specialist in the country" Dr. Stam is a retired professor from Harvard and Tufts Universities and emergency medicine physician who mentored Dr. Onik when he was in college. He is also one of the first patients on which Dr. Onik used cryosurgery (freezing) for prostate cancer. "Cryosurgery is the gold standard for prostate treatment," said Dr. Stam. "Gary always pushes the envelope. He refuses to take other people's opinion that someone cannot be treated. He finds a way. His approach is, "What are we going to do about it?'"
David Bostwick, M.D. considers cryosurgery to be the "finest single method of destroying tissue without destroying the organ, because you can control it," and credits Dr. Onik as being the first to use it. "It's taken a while for cryosurgery to become popular, because for a long time the government wouldn't reimburse it, and the doctors don't get paid as much for doing it as they do for surgery," he said. Dr. Bostwick is Associate Medical Director at Bostwick Laboratories in Orlando, Florida and a former Professor of Pathology and Urology at the Mayo Clinic.
Writing in the July 11, 2014 issue of the Journal of Men's Health, Dr. Onik explained that his breakthrough concept of focal therapy using cryosurgery could potentially decrease the mortality rate by 75 percent among men with prostate cancer. He describes this procedure as analogous to a lumpectomy for women with breast cancer. "Not only is this a major advance in prostate cancer control results but incontinence and potency rates are significantly improved over conventional treatments such as robotic surgery and radiation," he wrote.
Yuman Fong, M.D. credits Dr. Onik with revolutionizing cancer treatment, calling tumor ablation one of the best therapies available for many cancers. "The proof of that is becoming very clear," said Dr. Fong. "Ablation is an easy way to treat cancer. It's often curative in liver cancer and is a first-line therapy. The advantage is that you don't have to cut someone open and poison them every week. Compared to other treatments, it's easy" Dr. Fong is Chairman of the Department of Surgery at City of Hope in Duarte, California and the former Murray F. Brennan Chair in Surgery and Professorship in surgery at Cornell Medical College, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Sometimes referred to as a "Renaissance Man" and a "virtuoso," Dr. Onik has molded a one-of-a-kind career as a radiologist/cancer specialist that has impacted multiple areas of medicine besides his chosen field: most prominently oncology, surgery, urology and neurosurgery.
Dr. Lee calls Dr. Onik's contributions the "fourth leg of the three-legged stool of cancer treatment"
"His pioneering work means hope for people when the other three legs of the stool have failed," he said. "He's the champion of sick people staring into the abyss, and that's worth a lot"
Dr. Onik said it disturbs him to know that there are thousands of people dying needlessly of cancer who aren't aware of the techniques and concepts he has developed "My criteria for accepting a patient is whether I believe they can walk out of the hospital cancer-free," noted Dr. Onik, whose compassionate attitude towards patients is a hallmark.
He's been able to do just that in numerous terminal patients with various forms of cancer including prostate, liver, skin, lung, pancreatic and breast.
"I tailor a unique solution to each patient's particular situation," he explained. "Sometimes that means developing a new instrument or technique. My greatest frustration is seeing technologies I have invented not being utilized to the fullest"
Why Isn't Tumor Ablation Widely Available?
So, then, why aren't his technologies, all FDA approved, as widespread as one might expect, considering their lifesaving potential? Like most other issues in medicine, the answer isn't a simple one.
One reason, Dr. Lee suggests, is the "we've-always-done-it-this-way" mentality. "Many old school doctors simply don't understand the power of what Gary's techniques do," he explained.
Dr. Fong points out another snag - that tumor ablation requires a skill that most surgeons don't have. "And," he noted, "this turns upside down the paradigm that therapy means cutting the lump out. The medical profession is very resistant to new things"
Finally, in order for his hands not to be tied by the typical conservative, conventional and bogged-down bureaucracy of academia, Dr. Onik has chosen to do his work as a private practitioner. Limited resources and a low-key approach to self-promotion have resulted in much of his practice being word of mouth.
"I have always carried out my cancer work according to the highest standards of academia," said Dr. Onik. "For example, I've published my work in numerous peer reviewed journals over the past 20 years. When that did not result in the general public learning about what I was doing, I left the academic workplace to pursue my goals with fewer restraints.
"As a radiologist practicing in the field of surgical oncology and working across many organ systems, I didn't fit into any mold that was available for a radiologist at the time," he continued. "I realized that if I stayed in academia I would be continually fighting turf battles with closed-minded doctors and conservative committees, issues that had nothing to do with the value of the ideas I was putting forth. It was an imperfect tradeoff, since being off the academic radar screen kept me from getting the attention that would have made the promotion of my ideas more effective and given me more recognition.
"I don't second guess the path I took," Dr. Onik continued. "Despite its limitations, it worked out very well for me personally, but being from Sloan Kettering or MD Anderson certainly gives you credibility and access to resources that I had to scramble for."
Dr. Onik didn't completely disassociate himself with academia, however. He now holds an adjunct professorship in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The Gary Onik Story
Gary Onik was born in 1952 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an accountant and homemaker. By age five the family had moved to Coney Island, and he already knew he wanted to be a doctor. One of the first science books Gary ever read was a mostly picture book about Louis Pasteur. He was intrigued. His passion was further fueled by the heart-warming tales told weekly on his two favorite TV shows Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare.
His would be no Cinderella story, however. Little Gary seemed far removed from the prospect of greatness as a child.
When he was eight years old his father died unexpectedly. His mother had to go to work, and Gary and his older brother were suddenly latchkey kids. Gary became angry, sometimes unmanageable, and frequently engaged in conflicts at home and school. His grades were mediocre, and he appeared doomed to grow into just another faceless man in the crowd squandering what would turn out to be a rare gift. Dreams of becoming a doctor evaporated as he saw his mother struggle to barely make ends meet.
Then fate intervened.
There was one teacher in junior high school who recognized the potential of a young man whose unpleasant faÃ§ade was nothing more than a mask for grief. Through mentoring and encouragement Gary straightened up and took school more seriously.
He became captain of the football and baseball teams in high school and made it into Harvard College where he still didn't exactly set the world on fire. However, he became friends there with cardiologist Dr. Allan Stam, a Harvard professor, emergency room doctor and coach of the school's whitewater club, which Gary joined. Dr. Stam introduced Gary to clinical medicine and got Gary fired up again to go to medical school.
A Career is Born
After being rejected by numerous medical schools due to less-than-stellar undergraduate grades, New York Medical College in Manhattan took a chance on Gary Onik, and that's when everything changed. At the end of four years he had earned the #1 spot in his graduating class.
After toying with pursuing emergency medicine, the newly-minted doctor chose to go into radiology - and that's where the magic began.
The 1980s - A Heady Time in Radiology
The early 80s were a heady time in radiology, when emerging technologies like CT scanners were coming into their own. By then Dr. Onik was a radiology resident at the University of California, San Francisco and had an idea for a new way to kill liver cancer. At the time, the only way to treat it was to surgically remove the tumors since chemotherapy and radiation was not curative. His idea was to use an imaging device to guide an instrument into the tumor without removing it, freeze the cancerous tissue while leaving the surrounding tissue undamaged, then let the body get rid of it naturally.
"The idea was so simple that I thought something must be wrong with it," he said. His professor had a different opinion and urged his young student to pursue the idea.
Gary took a year off from his residency with the help of funding from the National Cancer Institute and developed his signature tumor ablation technique, which he would refine and use throughout the rest of his career. His work was published and won prestigious awards from the major radiology societies for his groundbreaking approach.
"All of a sudden I was a medical rock star," recalled Dr. Onik. "My work was looked upon as an unequivocal breakthrough in the treatment of liver cancer and possibly in other cancers as well. Finally patients who were terminal had hope of being cured. All the top cancer centers began using it."
So Many Breakthroughs
More techniques and instrumentation followed, creating a new field he pioneered now known as "interventional oncology."
Along the way he accomplished many breakthroughs including a new a new biopsy technique called 3D prostate mapping, which enables a safer and more accurate biopsy than the traditional transrectal biopsy for diagnosing prostate cancer.
His techniques were applied successfully to cancer in virtually every organ except the pancreas. A breakthrough for pancreatic cancer occurred when he and his long-time collaborator Boris Rubinsky PhD introduced the first new potentially curative treatment for pancreatic cancer called IRE (irreversible electroporation). IRE kills cancer cells by electrically punching holes in the cancer cell without injuring the surrounding structures that typically keep pancreatic cancer from being surgically removed.
Besides all the work Dr. Onik did in the cancer field, he also invented and introduced the first minimally invasive surgical procedure to treat herniated lumber discs called APLD (automated percutaneous lumbar discectomy). This work not only earned him numerous awards but it also resulted in his being made an honorary citizen of Turin, Italy!
Dropping Out of Sight
Not one to follow convention, Dr. Onik did something in 2011 that shocked everyone who knew him or knew of him.
He stopped working.
He stopped inventing.
He dropped out of sight.
For three years.
Rumors flew. What could possibly have gone wrong? Where in the world was cancer treatment's most prominent nonconformist?
Well, he went to boat mechanic school for a year. Yes, boat mechanic school.
He then sailed his catamaran Ice Wars II 8,000 miles. Around Florida. Up the East Coast. Through the Bermuda Triangle. Around the Caribbean.
But why? Midlife crisis? Something worse?
No. It was because of a young man named Allan Onik, Dr. Onik's son who has Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism. Allan had just graduated from college and he wasn't working or thriving. Dr. Onik was worried. With his typical flair for outside-of-the-box thinking, he enrolled himself and Allan in boat mechanic school (The Landing School in Kennebunk Maine) to give his son a sense of purpose. A year later, with the course completed they finished building their sailboat and embarked on an 8,000 mile sailing expedition together.
"It was hard for people to understand how I could just walk away from medicine at what was arguably the top of my game," Dr. Onik said, "but Allan is my son, and this was not a sacrifice in any way. In fact it was undoubtedly one of my life's greatest joys and achievements."
Back to Work
After their three-year academic and nautical odyssey and father-son bonding, Allan was thriving, so Dr. Onik enthusiastically returned to work. He promptly dove again into inventing and refining his craft and, of course, treating cancer patients with no hope.
Changing Lives - Leaving a Legacy
Right before Dr. Onik did an new treatment designed specifically for Joe Lee, a retired tech salesman from Spring Lake, Michigan, his PSA was 28.5 and he had cancer invading the organs and lymph nodes of his abdomen. Six weeks later his PSA was so low it was undetectable, and there were no signs of cancer.
"I owe my life to Dr. Onik," said Lee, who had just gotten off the phone arranging a golf game with one of his four grandsons for the following day. "I went from Hospice on the horizon to Miracle Man in 90 days. And I got my mojo back," he joked.
Joe has the distinction of being the first patient to undergo an immunotherapy treatment developed by Dr. Onik where his own tumor was used as a specific vaccine for his cancer.
"Based on what can only be called 'the miracle' of Joe's response to the procedure and the immunotherapy, we are very optimistic that a new chapter has been opened in the treatment of prostate cancer and many other cancers that are currently resistant to conventional treatments," Dr. Onik said.
Jeannie Berry from Sugarland, Texas has a tale of second chances, too. "According to what the doctors told me, I should be in bed right now, riddled with pain and dying," said Berry, whose mouth cancer was treated by Dr. Onik in May of 2014. "Instead, I just baked four different types of cupcakes today and am preparing for out-of-town company."
Marsha Sawyer, who was diagnosed with metastatic cancer of the liver in 1987 and underwent cryosurgery by Dr. Onik, not only lived to see her boys grow into men but has made a real difference in the world of education. As a former Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative project director, she serves as mentor to current project teams across the United States. A longtime champion of educational opportunity and positive youth development, she is an administrator at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. Here she assists first generation and underrepresented college students prepare for professions and doctoral level study in health and STEM-related fields.
"Finding Gary Onik was a godsend," she said. "Everyone else had written me off. I call the cryoprocedure he performed my "killer frost". Having my life saved was a miracle."
"Any one invention Gary has come up with would be enormous by itself, but all of them combined is astounding," noted Dr. Bostwick, formerly of Mayo Clinic. "Gary doesn't see boundaries in specialties. He's a radiologist who has made more contributions to the world of urology than any living individual. He's also done more than anyone alive to advance the field of tumor ablation."
"Gary started a revolution in interventional oncology," added Dr. Lee. "He's the person who lit the match - the "index physician."