Joseph Matthews, 53, knows the drive to MD Anderson Cancer Center like the back of his hand. After being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2011, Matthews enrolled in a clinical trial at MD Anderson Cancer Center in which he received treatment with the anti-CTLA-4 antibody called ipilimumab, prior to having a prostatectomy. From January through March, 2012, Matthews and his wife, Angela, would wake up before the sun rose and drive nearly two hours from Beaumont to Houston, Texas, returning late in the evening after a full day of treatments and tests. “We probably made—and I’m not exaggerating—50 or 60 trips up and down that highway,” said Matthews, a refinery mechanic and father of two. But it was well worth the travel time: he and his wife credit the experimental immunotherapy treatment with saving his life. Joseph has been cancer free for more than a year and his wife reports that he’s “doing wonderful.” They are hopeful about his upcoming checkup at MD Anderson. We spoke with Joseph about his cancer journey.
CRI: How did you discover that you had prostate cancer?
Joseph: I was at the doctor’s office doing routine blood work. My PSA level was a little high, so the doctor sent me to a specialist who ended up doing a biopsy. Sure enough, it came back positive. He told me, “I’m gonna send some samples to MD Anderson to get a second opinion.” They sent letters back saying, “Oh yeah, it’s definitely cancer, and you need to get busy doing something about it.” When I heard the diagnosis, I was at the doctor’s office, and he came in and told me.
CRI: Was anyone with you?
Joseph: I had my wife with me. She didn’t cry, but she was emotional. In my family, cancer ran rampant. My mother, her siblings, her dad all died of one form of cancer or another, most of them before the age of 57. So when you hear that you have cancer, you automatically think that it’s a death sentence.
CRI: How did you react?
Joseph: Immediately, it rattles you. It rattles you pretty good. I remember we hadn’t eaten, but I had made my mind up: I wanted some eggs and grits, and I wasn’t gonna let some doctor telling me I had cancer mess that up. So even though I was shook up, we went to Waffle House, and I ate anyway. But believe you me, I sure didn’t feel like it.
CRI: How many years have you and your wife been married?
Joseph: Two years.
CRI: Did you do anything for your anniversary?
Joseph: Well, I took the week off and tried to look at her the whole time. [Laughs] When the doctors told me what was going on, she immediately got on board. She was there every minute, through all of the tests, all of the treatments, all of the exams. Some of them were pretty brutal.
CRI: Is it a long trip from your home to MD Anderson?
Joseph: We live in Beaumont, Texas, and MD Anderson is in downtown Houston, about an hour-and-a-half drive to the door. We probably made—and I’m not exaggerating—50 or 60 trips up and down that highway. We’d leave at 5 or 6 in the morning and get home at 9 at night. But you know what? Even if you start out not wanting to do it because of the distance, you get to MD Anderson and see people who’ve flown in from all over the world. That put it into perspective real quick.
“Because of this cancer being hereditary, there was a chance my kids could end up with it, and this [clinical trial] would possibly help them down the line.”
CRI: Why did you decide to do the clinical trial?
Joseph: It was really a simple decision. They explained that it could possibly have advantages for me with the type of cancer I had. Because of this cancer being hereditary, there was a chance my kids could end up with it, and this research would possibly help them down the line. They explain to you pretty eloquently that there are gonna be some side effects, which I pretty much experienced 80 or 90 percent of.
CRI: What was your experience in the trial like?
Joseph: Well, I made my first visit to MD Anderson in January 2012, and then the surgery was in April. In the months before that, I was taking the research medicine [the anti-CTLA-4 drug ipilimumab]. For the first couple months, it didn’t look like the treatment was having any effect on me. The peculiar thing is the side effects showed up after the surgery. I noticed that my vision started to get weird, and then I started having some diarrhea. I’ve never been diabetic, but I was told I was becoming diabetic, so I had to start taking insulin shots to the tune of four shots a day, and six pills a day, and I had to monitor myself. You’ve got symptoms where you get little sores in your mouth. I developed bad headaches, and then they increased my steroids, and the headaches went away, and eventually everything started to even out. I got on track. But for a little while it was tough. I must have lost 35 pounds.
CRI: Were any of the side effects lasting?
Joseph: They told me, Mr. Matthews, you may be in a diaper the rest of your life, and you may have some problems with your sex life and blah, blah, blah. But I’m here to tell you that I ain’t got no problems with none of that. [Laughs.] I was out of that diaper within a month and a half, and my body’s acting the way it’s supposed to.
CRI: What helped you through that difficult period?
Joseph: My whole family, my friends, and my in-laws were wonderful. That makes a difference; it keeps you strong and happy in your mind. I’m a firm believer that if you’re going through something rough, you heal better and feel better if you can maintain a positive and happy attitude.
The anti-CTLA-4 antibody, ipilimumab (Yervoy®) was developed by CRI Scientific Advisory Council director James P. Allison, Ph.D.
CRI: Would you recommend clinical trials to others?
Joseph: If they offered me that research today, I’d do it again. Wouldn’t hesitate. Because, to be honest with you, I’m in better shape now than I was before it started. The research showed me a lot of things that I was already doing wrong. Like I wasn’t eating properly, wasn’t exercising right. I am in excellent shape now—hardly any body fat.
CRI: How do you feel the experience has changed you?
Joseph: My patience has gotten so much better. My understanding of people has gotten so much better. I used to read my Bible occasionally, but now my prayer habits have gotten better. I’ve got to be at work at 6:30, and I’ve developed a regimen now where I get up at five; I pray and read my Bible ‘til about 5:30; I go to work; I come home on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and I start hitting the track. I’m up to about two miles. I’ve got my exercise plan together. I’ve got my plan with God together. I tell my wife I love her every day. I got an eight-year-old son, and he’s pretty rambunctious. He likes to talk about stuff for hours, and I used to give him a good hour of sitting down and talking, but after that hour, he burnt me out. But I’m telling you, the way the cancer has changed me now, if he wanted to sit there and talk about something for five hours, I could do it and it’s not even a struggle.
CRI: Has cancer also changed how you interact with your community?
Joseph: The Lord put it in my heart to share this experience with other people so I could get some prayer warriors on board for me. It was an eye-opener because black people don’t check their PSA levels like they should. That’s why the prostate cancer rate is so high among them. So I took it on myself to get the word out, to let people know that this is real, and anybody could get it.
CRI: What are you looking forward to now?
Joseph: We don’t need a big reason to celebrate or start a party around here. Look, if the sun shines real bright, my wife and I will throw a party. We set to boil some crawfish, go fishing. She’s got a birthday party coming up in July and we’re already planning for that. We already paid for the place and are trying to decide what caterer we’re going to have. It’s her 50th, so we’re gonna blow it out!