Local doctor races to raise funds for rare 10-in-a-million cancer

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published October 6, 2021

 Elizabeth Zide, a Bloomfield Hills-based doctor, accomplished  a “bucket list” item of her’s last month when she walked through  the Grand Canyon, rim-to-rim, in one day.

Elizabeth Zide, a Bloomfield Hills-based doctor, accomplished a “bucket list” item of her’s last month when she walked through the Grand Canyon, rim-to-rim, in one day.

Photo provided by Elizabeth Zide

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WEST BLOOMFIELD/BLOOMFIELD HILLS — As Dr. Elizabeth Zide swiped through the CT scan results on her computer, she skipped straight to the image of the appendix. After all, that’s where the patient complained of pain.

But she saw nothing of concern.

So she started flipping back through the rest of the images, and when she came across the image of the liver, she did a double take. Though there were no symptoms that might indicate a problem there, Zide spotted an 11-centimeter mass. Something that big clearly had to have been growing for some time.

After a few minutes of studying the images, the reality of the situation finally settled in. The test results were her own.

“Looking at the film, I was in doctor mode, and it wasn’t even registering in my brain. I was removed from it, like I was looking at a patient,” said Zide, a West Bloomfield resident. “As soon as I took it in, my first thought was I didn’t want to tell my husband. Then he walked in the room (and saw my reaction). Even now, he says ‘I’ll never forget the look on your face.’”

That was 2018, and it wasn’t until several months later — along with several different doctors with different opinions — that Zide, a physician herself at Bloomfield Hills’ Michigan Integrative Medicine, learned she not only had cancer, she had carcinoid syndrome, and specifically, a neuroendocrine tumor, or NET. It’s what’s known as an “orphan disease,” because the general lack of knowledge and research on the rare cancer makes it hard to diagnose and even harder to treat.

NETs are essentially cancers found in the body’s hormone-producing cells. They can develop pretty much anywhere, from the digestive tract to the lungs and even skin. Instead of starting as a single, fast-growing tumor, the cancer is usually several small tumors that are almost imperceptible until much later in the disease’s progression.

In fact, Zide said she wasn’t symptomatic until the tumor in her liver had grown so large it was pressing on other organs and causing pain.

“I could’ve had this 10-20 years, for how much it must’ve metastasized,” she said. “More than 50% of people at the time of the diagnosis have metastases because it’s slow growing and hard to find. Doctors wouldn’t immediately look for something like that when you go in with gastrointestinal symptoms.”

The good news for Zide is that her prognosis is great: after two surgeries, 95% of her cancer has been removed, at the cost of nearly half her liver. Biopsies show her cancer is slow growing, so she’ll likely enjoy a healthy life for decades to come.

She credits her medical experience for part of that outcome, since she was able to really explore all her options for treatment, as limited as they are for such a rare disease.

But to improve outcomes for other patients, better tests and treatments are badly needed. Even though most of her cancer is gone, some will always be there, and Zide said she’ll likely need some kind of treatment down the line — one that hasn’t even been discovered yet, because of the massive lack of resources devoted to studying NETs. The odds of developing carcinoid syndrome are less than 1%, or 10 cases in every 1 million people.

“We want to raise awareness so we can get more research dollars to find better diagnostic techniques,” she said. “It’s not like other cancers, so no one type of chemotherapy works.”

So along with raising awareness, Zide hopes to fundraise as much as she can to donate to the Neuroendocrine Tumor Research Foundation. The NETRF has donated about $30 million to NET research since it was founded in 2005.

Zide wants to add $15,000 to that, and she’s nearly halfway there.

Her latest effort will be Oct. 17, when she hits the pavement to run the Detroit Free Press Half-marathon Oct. 16. Before that, she walked from one rim of the Grand Canyon to the other on Sept. 26 — a feat she planned to achieve last year for her birthday, but had to skip to undergo surgery to remove more cancer.

She feels especially drawn to physical challenges that bring awareness to her cause.

“I’m a big proponent of living healthy and exercising. As a doctor, I know bodies respond to treatments better when they’re healthy,” she said. “And it’s important to me to be active and check off some of these bucket list things, to prove to myself that I can, that I’m recovered.”

Elyse Gellerman is the CEO of NETRF, and she said she continues to be amazed by Zide’s journey and determination. Of course she’s grateful for her help supporting the foundation, too.

“She’s really an inspiration to those with neuroendocrine cancer. She’s not only increasing our funds and raising awareness, but she takes the time to talk with other patients,” Gellerman said. “I think it’s so important for those in our community to support each other, especially those with new diagnoses.”

Her fundraising page, called Zide’s Strides, is under the fundraising tab on the NETRF website. To learn more or make a donation, visit netrf.org.

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