Lung cancer survivor: Targeted therapy clinical trial halted my stage IV disease

Until November 2018, I’d never been hospitalized before. So, the suddenness of my lung cancer diagnosis at age 65 that year caught me completely off-guard.

I’d had a persistent cough for several months. But I felt it was allergy- or acid reflux-related, so I wasn’t overly concerned. Then I started having trouble climbing the stairs in my Dallas home. I didn’t have much energy, and I was losing weight. The rapid decline in my health was unnerving. Finally, I went to a doctor.

My physician ordered a chest X-ray, which showed a collapsed left lung and a growth in my chest. I knew it was serious, so I made the decision to get checked out at MD Anderson immediately. My wife, Leslie, had already been in treatment there for pancreatic cancer for about 18 months, so I knew I’d be in the best hands receiving the best possible care.

It was only a matter of weeks before Dr. John Heymach gave me a clear diagnosis. It seemed like an eternity at the time. But in hindsight, the right diagnosis was worth the wait.

My stage IV, never-smoker lung cancer diagnosis

It was a shock to discover I had stage IV adenocarcinoma — a type of lung cancer — because I’d never been a smoker. But it was a relief, too, because at least I finally knew what the problem was. The primary tumor was in my left lung. By the time I was diagnosed, the cancer had already spread to my right lung, as well as my lower spine and five small spots in my brain.

My doctors recommended Gamma Knife® radiosurgery first to treat the brain tumors. Neurosurgeon Dr. Fred Lang and radiation oncologist Dr. Jing Li worked together to perform that procedure on Dec. 17, 2018. Then, I got tested to see if I might benefit from any type of targeted therapy.

Choosing a clinical trial for my lung cancer treatment

As it turns out, I have a genetic mutation that made me eligible to join a clinical trial. My doctors recommended one involving a new targeted therapy drug called brigatinib under Dr. Yasir Elamin. It’s probably one of the most advanced treatments available to me as a lung cancer patient. So, I felt very fortunate to receive it.

I started taking brigatinib pills on Dec. 27, 2018. And to say it’s been miraculous would be an understatement. The drug worked so well that by the time Dr. Ara Vaporicyan performed surgery to remove the primary tumor and part of my left lung on March 26, 2019, all that was left was dead tissue. The growths on my spine and right lung have become almost undetectable.

How I feel about being in a targeted therapy clinical trial

Some people ask if I was ever apprehensive about being on a clinical trial. But I never was because I never felt like a test case. There was only a strong sense of my treatment being the right fit for me. The guidance my doctors provided made my other decisions relatively easy. That allowed me to move forward with a great deal of confidence.

Aside from that, the life-saving treatment I’m receiving now is a direct result of previous research. So, I am thrilled to be paying that gift forward by participating in current research now.

What gave me reassurance about MD Anderson

Dallas has many fine hospitals, but I never wanted to second-guess my decision about where to seek cancer treatment. At MD Anderson, I felt like that would never be the case. They are the best, and I have seen that first-hand, both as my wife’s caregiver and as a patient myself.

The collaborative nature of MD Anderson — in which all of my doctors work together — reassured me that my treatment path was the best one. And because my diagnosis was precise and correct, I had no doubt that my treatments aligned with it perfectly.

I still have the use of both of my lungs today, and I’ve regained almost all of my energy and quality of life. The lung cancer has not spread to any new places. You simply can’t ask for a better result than that.

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