Stage IV kidney cancer survivor: Immunotherapy gave me hope

When I was in my 20s, people referred to cancer as the “Big C.” Back then, there weren’t many treatment options, and the prognosis wasn’t good.  But my recent stage IV kidney cancer diagnosis has shown me how far medicine has come over the last five decades.

In March 2015, I developed a persistent dry cough. My family doctor spent five months trying to cure it. After nothing worked, he ordered a chest X-ray. It showed a mass in my lower left lung.

A subsequent CT scan revealed the tumor was 8 centimeters long and pushing against my laryngeal nerve. When the scan also showed a mass at the top of my kidney, I underwent a CT scan of my abdomen that revealed a big tumor on my left kidney. At that point, my diagnosis was clear: I had kidney cancer — specifically, stage IV renal cell carcinoma.

Seeking metastatic kidney cancer treatment

The first urologist I saw gave me only a 10-15% chance for survival, even with treatment. He recommended I start arranging for hospice care. But my family and I weren’t going to give up.

My children connected me with a surgeon who agreed to perform a total nephrectomy, which would get rid of 95% of my cancer. I jumped at the opportunity, and on Sept. 16, 2015, underwent surgery to have my left kidney entirely removed.

During a follow-up appointment, that oncologist referred me to MD Anderson, which was close to my home in Brenham, Texas. He knew the doctors there would be equipped to handle my case. That afternoon, we received a call from MD Anderson and scheduled an appointment with Dr. Eric Jonasch.

Joining a kidney cancer clinical trial

When we met with Dr. Jonasch, he was straightforward, but sensitive. He explained the severity of my cancer — I had aggressive tumors in both my lungs and pancreas — but he also offered treatment options, along with hope.

Dr. Jonasch wanted to put me on an immunotherapy drug called nivolumab, but at the time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hadn’t yet approved it for kidney cancer treatment, and the protocol for the clinical trial offering it required me to try an already approved drug first. So, Dr. Jonasch started me on a chemotherapy pill.

I enrolled in a clinical trial studying whether changing the timing of the drug’s administration could reduce its side effects, so I had more frequent breaks between the time on and off the medication. Still, I suffered from nausea, diarrhea, appetite loss, fatigue and high blood pressure.

But my tumors shrunk for the first few months, and I remained stable for a few more.

My next treatment: immunotherapy

In October 2016, scans showed that my tumors had grown. Thankfully, the FDA had approved nivolumab for kidney cancer treatment by then. Dr. Jonasch immediately switched me to nivolumab and arranged for me to get my infusions every 14 days with Dr. Jennifer Wang  at MD Anderson in Katy — a shorter and less stressful drive for me.

The scans after my first immunotherapy infusion showed my tumors were shrinking again. And I had no side effects from the medication. I was relieved and thankful to God for my body’s response to the new treatment.

Immunotherapy is giving me hope

Today, only the tumor in my left lung is still visible on CT scans, and it’s shrunk to 1.1 centimeters. I return to MD Anderson in Katy every 28 days to get a double-dose of immunotherapy. This gives me a bigger break between infusions.

I may never experience remission, but I still feel blessed because I’ve been given more time to love my family and friends and share my Christian faith.

With all the new knowledge and medications out there, hope exists. My story is a good example of that.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.