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A Speck of Hope

After years battling cancer, Dave Musso feels lucky to have one more chance--taking an experimental drug and charting an unknown course.

October 30, 1998|ANTONIO OLIVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Say, kids, what time is it?"

A tinny recording of "The Howdy Doody Show's" bouncy theme song bubbled from Mary Musso's car radio as she inched along the congested San Diego Freeway toward UCLA.

After a long bout with lung cancer, "Buffalo Bob" Smith was dead, a radio host announced during a brief tribute to the TV puppeteer of the 1950s. Mary was on her way to see her husband, Dave, himself struggling with lung cancer in the UCLA hospital intensive-care unit.

Cancer seemed to be everywhere since the Mussos began a harrowing journey in 1991 through five sets of tumors that ravaged Dave's tongue, larynx and lungs. The Northridge couple seemed to be confronted at every turn by the disease that annually kills 565,000 Americans.

As Dave endured treatment that took chunks from both lungs and stripped him of his ability to taste, smell, swallow and--except with a mechanical voice box--speak, the couple watched several friends sprout tumors and die.

"We've seen a lot of people around us go," Mary said.

Driving brought no respite, as day after day the radio reported the cancer deaths of celebrities--Smith, "Lamb Chop" ventriloquist Shari Lewis, singer Linda McCartney and comedian Corbett Monica.

The grim news tolled from her speakers, drowning out the feats 71-year-old Mary would much rather hear about--those of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

The Mussos, die-hard sports fans, all summer had been following the two baseball sluggers' quest to join the ranks of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris--both also dead of cancer.

"We're watching history being made," Dave said. "It's fantastic."

The thrill of this season's home-run race was one of the few things the couple still relished after Dave--with several new tumors in his left lung--was told in July that he had no more than nine months to live. As a last-ditch effort to extend his life, the 75-year-old agreed to take part in a cancer drug experiment at UCLA.

But the treatment wasn't going well. Days after receiving his first dose of the new compound, Dave coughed up streams of blood from his tumor-filled lung. Though it had stopped almost immediately, the bleeding put him in intensive care, where doctors puzzled over its cause.

"All we can do is monitor him," said Dr. Fairooz Kabbinavar, Dave's physician.

Kabbinavar, also an oncologist at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, helped coordinate the five-state experiment. Yet now he was unsure where it was headed.

The bleeding could mean Dave was getting worse, that a golf-ball-size tumor in his lung was gnawing deeper. Or it could be a good sign, an indication the drug was shrinking the tumor, tearing away its feeder blood vessels.

"It's too soon to tell," Kabbinavar said.

'Maybe It's the New Drug . . . Working'

Pale and ashen, Dave looked miserable, Mary thought as she walked through the swinging doors of the ICU. He looked trapped in a web of tubes and beeping machines that monitored his condition and pumped oxygen into his good lung.

Mary wore a multicolored floral-print blouse and rose-red lipstick, trying to look pretty for Dave, to lift his spirits. She cheerfully toted the sports pages, which showed McGwire up by four home runs over Sosa and closing fast on Maris' record of 61.

Dave barely noticed. Still exhausted from the bleeding and the excitement that followed, he silently longed for home.

"At least the bleeding has stopped," she said, absently clenching her fists.

Dave's strength hadn't improve much when, days later, he was released from the hospital. Despite a frantic welcome-home licking from dog Nicky, he mostly slept during the next few weeks. He didn't go near his favorite spot, beneath the backyard orange tree, or anywhere else.

"Gee, I'm awfully tired and weak," Dave thought repeatedly.

Contemplating the experimental compound coursing through his veins, he told himself, "Maybe it's the new drug. . . . Maybe it's working."

The couple clung to that vague hope when they returned to the Jonsson Cancer Center in August for Dave's second dose of the experimental compound.

Their involvement in the experiment, in some ways, gave them an advantage over thousands of other cancer patients who visit the crowded center each month.

Desperate for hope, scores of those patients scramble to enroll in an experimental cancer treatment trial, center spokeswoman Kim Irwin said; 200 are currently being conducted.

Many are turned away, either because their condition does not match the needs of the experiment or because the study is at full capacity, she said. Others who win admission find hopes dashed when the experimental treatment proves ineffective.

Recently, Irwin said, "a woman from Beverly Hills called me and she was hysterical. Her husband had just been diagnosed and she found out about this [lung cancer] experiment on the Internet.

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