Thyroid cancer survivor: MD Anderson took me from hospice to hope

In January 2017, I was diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer. The disease was so advanced that I was given only a few weeks to live. So, when I first started my battle against cancer, I was just hoping to gain a bit more time. I never dreamed I’d still be here today.

Yet here I am, almost two years later. I am completely cancer-free — and I have MD Anderson to thank for it.

I knew very little about thyroid cancer or its treatment before I was diagnosed. Even now, most of the medical stuff is over my head. But one thing I do understand is hope. And I found a lot of that at MD Anderson.

My anaplastic thyroid cancer symptoms

I had a lot of swelling in my neck for several weeks before my diagnosis. I was also unusually tired and irritable. I thought it was just weight gain at first, so I didn’t go to the doctor. But when I started having trouble breathing and swallowing, I went to a local emergency room, near my home in Indiana.

The doctors there performed a CT scan, which showed a large mass in my neck, as well as several cancerous lymph nodes. The tumor was so big that it had completely surrounded one of my carotid arteries and almost flattened my windpipe. That made breathing difficult and swallowing even harder.

Why I came to MD Anderson

The size and location of the tumor made surgery impossible. My local hospital is great and its doctors are talented, but their experience with my type of cancer was extremely limited. They didn’t know of any other treatments that could help me, so the best they could offer was to keep me comfortable. My doctors suggested I get my affairs in order and recommended hospice care.

Luckily, my wife would not accept that diagnosis. She started looking around and discovered that MD Anderson was doing research on my exact type of cancer. She called and spoke to someone in the Endocrine Center. A few hours later, Dr. Maria Cabanillas called her back, and by the next morning, I had appointments scheduled at MD Anderson for the following Monday.

Considering a clinical trial

At first, Dr. Cabanillas recommended a clinical trial involving two targeted therapy drugs: dabrafenib and trametinib. The combination had already been approved as a treatment for metastatic melanoma, and it was now being studied for use in treating anaplastic thyroid cancer.

But by the time I got to MD Anderson, I couldn’t even swallow water anymore, much less a pill. So I was not eligible to participate.

Still, Dr. Cabanillas thought that particular combination of drugs could help me, so I got my first dose of dabrafenib through a feeding tube on the evening of Feb. 23, 2017. I started taking trametinib about a month later and an immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab about a week after that.

My anaplastic thyroid cancer treatment

The idea was to shrink the tumor first, remove it once it was smaller, then kill anything left behind with radiation therapy. I had surgery on May 30, about three months after I started treatment. My surgeon, Dr. Mark Zafereo, completely removed my thyroid, as well as some diseased lymph nodes. After that, I had 30 doses of radiation therapy under Dr. Adam Garden.

I’m not sure exactly how much the drugs shrank the tumor, but I do remember seeing a side-by-side comparison of pictures taken in February and May. The difference was dramatic. Just two days after my first dose of dabrafenib, I was able to take a sip of water and swallow it. A few weeks later, breathing became easier, too. My tumor responded so quickly to the treatment that I ended up only needing the feeding tube for two weeks, instead of the six weeks my doctors had expected.

My life after thyroid cancer

I still take dabrafenib and trametinib pills daily. I also get an infusion of pembrolizumab every three weeks. And, because my thyroid was completely removed, I’ll have to take a synthetic thyroid hormone pill (levothyroxine) every day for the rest of my life.

Due to those medications, there are about six hours out of each day that I’m not allowed to eat. Sometimes, I get a fever or chills, and I can’t talk for as long as I used to. But that’s OK. Because I can still do almost everything else I did before cancer. I just don’t do them quite as fast or have as much stamina.

I used to have a very loud, projecting voice. I coached basketball for years, and could be heard all over the gymnasium. I can’t yell now, though, so coaching is a thing of the past. But I still work, hunt, play golf and roughhouse with my grandkids. And I have no trouble swallowing, so there’s nothing I can’t eat.

I realize that cancer could raise its ugly head at any time, but I’ve shown no evidence of disease since September 2017. I suspect I’ll be around for a while. My life is different now, but it’s still good. So, don’t give up, even if you’re told it’s hopeless. There is always hope. And I’m the proof.

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