Why I took a chance on immunotherapy

MD Anderson’s Dr. Patrick Hwu often tells me that if he could write a cancer success story, he would want it to read just like mine. Why? Because my treatment for stage IV kidney cancer in 2014 is the perfect example of what makes MD Anderson special.

My story involves a determined oncologist, a talented surgeon, and a potent immunotherapy drug. All together, they have kept me cancer-free for nearly five years.

My stage IV kidney cancer diagnosis

When the kidney cancer I’d originally been treated for in Austin returned three years later, I was given a less than 5% chance of surviving. The emergency room doctor who diagnosed me said the disease had already spread to my spleen, pancreas, lungs, colon, appendix and bladder. And once cancer gets to that point (stage IV), he told me, it usually can’t be cured — only managed.

But this time, I went to MD Anderson. And my oncologist there, Dr. Jianjun Gao, wasn’t satisfied with just giving me a pill to slow the cancer down. Something about my situation kept nagging at him, even after my first appointment.

Dr. Gao later told me that he couldn’t stop thinking about my situation, so right after I left his office, he approached his chairman of the Department of Genitourinary Medical Oncology, Dr. Christopher Logothetis, to discuss my case. Drs. Logothetis and Gao recommended a regimen involving an immunotherapy drug called “interleukin 2” (IL-2). It was already being used to treat melanoma, but it could also be used to treat kidney cancer.

When Dr. Gao told me about IL-2, I was excited to have another option. He said the drug only had a 6-7% chance of working, but if it did, I might actually be cured. At the time, I was a single mom with three teenagers. And I wanted to live. I decided to go for it.

My stage IV kidney cancer treatment

The plan was for me to receive seven rounds of high-dose IL-2 immunotherapy by IV starting in January 2014, then have surgery to remove what was left of the cancer. Dr. Gao referred me to melanoma specialist Dr. Nicholas Papadopoulos (now retired), so I could receive the medicine under his supervision. The high-dose IL-2 was so strong and so hard on me that I had to spend the first week of each round in the intensive care unit at MD Anderson, then the next two weeks recovering at home.

I don’t have any lingering side effects today, but while I was undergoing treatment, I lost a lot of weight. I also developed a very large blood clot on my liver. To dissolve it, I had to get blood thinner injections twice a day for about a month. And because the clot was pressing so hard on my stomach, at one point, I didn’t eat anything by mouth for about 11 days.

My kidney cancer surgery

Fortunately, by June of 2014, my scans showed the immunotherapy was working. The tumors in my lungs were completely gone. And the others were much smaller. Dr. Papadopoulos sent me to Dr. Surena Matin in the Genitourinary Center to discuss surgery.

Dr. Matin assembled a team of specialists and led the procedure himself on July 2, 2014. It lasted more than eight hours. During the surgery, Dr. Matin removed the rest of my left kidney, along with my adrenal glands, spleen, appendix, the tail of my pancreas and parts of my bladder and colon. I had two more rounds of immunotherapy afterwards. By August 2014, my scans showed no signs of disease.

MD Anderson gave me my life back

I truly believe that I owe my life to the physicians at MD Anderson. Their willingness to try something different is what made me cancer-free today. And I am living a good life. Since finishing treatment, I’ve gotten remarried and seen all my children graduate from high school. I’ve even seen one graduate from college.

Dr. Matin performed a miracle in that operating room. My cancer was so extensive that he actually had to rebuild the padding between my intestines. And Dr. Nicholas Papadopoulos was a pioneer. He essentially created my treatment protocol from scratch. But if it wasn’t for Dr. Gao’s initial refusal to accept the standard of care as my only option, I probably wouldn’t be here.

I am so thankful for my MD Anderson physicians. They have all been so encouraging, and they never gave up on me. That’s why I don’t think of MD Anderson as a place anymore. MD Anderson is people — people who really care about you. It’s because of them that my story continues today.

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