Gloria Garcia was diagnosed in August 2017 with late stage 4 small cell lung cancer (SCLC) in the emergency room at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center (NYP/CUIMC). Admitted immediately, she began chemotherapy for six months. When the cancer spread to her brain, she received radiation which left her feeling weak and off balance. Gloria began a combination immunotherapy treatment, ipilimumab (Yervoy®) and nivolumab (Opdivo®) to help her immune system recognize and more effectively attack cancer.
Since she began immunotherapy in May 2018, she feels more energetic. Her oncologist, Catherine Ann Shu, M.D., is thrilled with Gloria's progress: "It is extremely rewarding to see patients respond. We are used to disappointment (especially with small cell lung cancer), so these new treatments that actually work are an incredible boost to morale. We as physicians form such close bonds to our patients, and every time a patient gets a good scan, I have a goofy grin on my face. Never gets old."
Gloria has since retired from her work as a family case worker, spanning over 21 years, and feels fortunate to be able to enjoy spending time and traveling with her family.
On Saturday September 15, 2018, Gloria will be sharing her experience on a panel at the Immunotherapy Patient Summit in New York City. She hopes her story may help others facing a cancer diagnosis.
CRI: How and when did you first learn that you had cancer?
Gloria: I first learned that I had late stage lung cancer last year on August 30, 2017. It was my husband’s birthday. I had bronchitis for 2 or 3 weeks, and was on heavy antibiotics which weren’t doing anything, and I was getting worse. And I told my husband and son, “I am taking myself to the hospital.” I went to the emergency room at NewYork-Presbyterian, and that day they diagnosed me, through a CAT scan, with stage 4 lung cancer. They admitted me right away.
They gave me chemotherapy for 6 or 7 months, every day. I was feeling better. But when they found it had spread to my brain, they started radiation.
CRI: How did you feel when you started radiation?
Gloria: With the radiation I got very sick. I was very weak. I could hardly even walk. My memory was fading. I had a hard time remembering. My balance was off.
But I have to say, I feel so lucky for the amazing team that God sent me. They have worked with me patiently. They have done and are doing everything they can for me. They are encouraging me. They keep my spirits up. If I call them they return my calls right away. I really believe in them.
CRI: It’s so important to be able to talk openly with your medical team. Can you tell me more about how you and your doctor built this trust?
Gloria: The trust is crucial because getting news that you have cancer is shocking. You aren’t expecting to get to a certain age and then hear that news. Having a team that works with you, that makes you feel comfortable, is so important. Dr. Shu and Kimberly, my nurse, they greet me now with a hug. We laugh and tell stories together. They listen attentively to everything I say, and don’t forget anything. That’s very important when you’re accepting your illness and hearing about the therapies. I was able to feel comfortable asking questions.
CRI: How did you learn about immunotherapy?
Gloria: Dr. Shu was the one that took my case upon admission. She was assigned to me and she stayed with me all the way. I was in and out of the hospital quite a few times. Dr. Shu gave me literature and websites to look at, and she helped me find information I needed.
The fortunate thing about me is that my son is a pharmacist, so he took a course on immunotherapy, and he knew more or less how it works, and he advised me to do it. He helped to support me. I am so blessed by many things, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
CRI: Tell me more about your family. How else did they support you?
Gloria: My husband, Mike, and my son, Arsenio—they have been so supportive, and I can’t express how grateful I am. I mean, they got me spoiled! My mother, my mother-in-law—everyone—I have to give all the credit to them. My husband would come with me to every appointment. My son got a car for me, so that Mike could take me to my appointments. So I am taken care of.
CRI: Can you describe your appointments? What is the process of receiving the immunotherapy treatment?
Gloria: First they do the blood work, to make sure everything is OK. The treatment is an infusion through the vein. I am getting two kinds of immunotherapy treatment. Sometimes it takes an hour, and sometimes it takes two hours.
CRI: How often do you have infusions?
Gloria: For the first two months I went in at least 2-3 times a week. But now, I go in once or twice a week.
CRI: How do you feel afterward? Did you have any side effects?
Gloria: No side effects at all. The only side effect I felt from this entire tragedy has been the radiation. The radiation has been very rough on me.
Now I feel more energetic. I don’t stay in bed. I get up, I walk around, I shower, I get dressed. I go out if the weather allows. I’m eating. I had lost a lot of weight, but I have a good appetite now. I put on 11 or 12 pounds. I’m able to travel, too, I went to a wedding last weekend that was beautiful.
CRI: Are there things that surprise you about this experience?
Gloria: I’ve learned to better appreciate life. I’ve learned to be patient. I was always patient, but now I’m really patient. I appreciate family even more.
I want to help others in whichever way I can—by supporting them in their sadness, you know, if someone needs advice, I can give them advice. I just talked to a friend of mine whose husband was diagnosed with cancer, and she was falling apart. I told her where to go and made her feel a little better. I want to help. I want to help anyone who needs my help.
CRI: What would you want another patient to know about immunotherapy or about participating in a clinical trial?
Gloria: I would want them to give it a try. At first when you hear about it you may say, “oh, that sounds scary,” but you need to think positively. You have to go in with a positive outlook, hope in your heart, and pray. Pray, absolutely pray… and like I say, I used to say to myself God give me life to raise my son. And he did. I raised my son; he is 35 years old and wonderful. So now, if he was to take my life with him, I would go happy because my son is safe and solid. Anything else he gives me, I would consider that a bonus.
CRI: What is your hope for other patients and their families experiencing a cancer diagnosis? What do you hope to share with them at the Immunotherapy Patient Summit?
Gloria: I hope to share with them the experience I went through, and especially from the perspective of where I am now in my life now. You just have to believe, you cannot think negatively. I hope to be there for them because everybody needs somebody to talk to. I would like to share that with anyone else who may need it.
CRI: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Gloria: Immunotherapy has allowed me to do what I wasn’t able to do before. I have more energy and I feel less sick now. I am truly fortunate.
Gloria will share more of her experience at CRI's Immunotherapy Patient Summit in New York City on September 15, 2018. To learn more and register for an Immunotherapy Patient Summit near you or for the livestream, please visit www.cancerresearch.org/summit
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