Immune to Cancer: The CRI Blog




Jon Deisher’s Immunotherapy Story

Esophageal Cancer |  Diagnosed 2013

Jon’s Story

Jon Deisher is a life-long Alaskan who has devoted himself to helping others. In his career as counselor he has worked with those suffering from chronic illness, trauma survivors, people with hearing loss, and the physically disabled.  His volunteer work has taken him to India several times for a polio immunization program.

When he was diagnosed with stage 3 esophageal cancer at 66, Jon drew on his years of experience as a counselor and the support of his wife and children to get through an aggressive treatment regimen: chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. When his cancer metastasized in 2014, he was determined not to lose hope, while at the same time, staying realistic.

Since diagnosis, Jon has been treated with major surgery, various types of chemotherapy, 61 rounds of radiation, and the biologic therapy Cyramza. With his current chemo regimen keeping the cancer at bay, Jon and his oncologist are choosing to stay the course. But Jon is hoping to find a more long-lasting treatment, and is researching clinical trials for checkpoint inhibitors, which “take the brakes off” T cells, enabling a more powerful immune response from the body.

UPDATE: Jon passed away in 2016. 

Questions and Answers

How and when did you first learn you had cancer?

I was diagnosed in April 2013: esophageal adenocarcinoma, stage IIIa. I had experienced acid reflux for years. I immediately went into combined chemo and radiation therapy and then had esophagectomy in August 2013.

I knew going in that of those who are diagnosed with esophageal carcinoma, 87% die within 18 months. Austere odds, but I also know that statistics apply to whole populations, but not to any one person. 13% survive for five years or more. I’ve always been healthy, even athletic. Minimal drinker. Non-smoker. No recreational drugs. No degenerative conditions. I have strong support from my wife, children, family, and friends. Why shouldn’t I be one of the 13% who survive? I dove immediately into treatment, my wife and daughters behind me.

I have a little joke: People commonly note, “Jon! You’re looking good.” (As if, for some reason, I shouldn’t.) My reply is: “There are three stages of life: Youth, Maturity, and ‘You’re looking good!'”

How did you learn about immunotherapy and why did you decide to do it?

Since 2013, I’ve had two recurrences. I’m now stage IV. This is a standard scenario for esophageal cancer: it shucks and jives, moves around, now you see it/now you don’t. It’s a fascinatingly evil kind of tenant that doesn’t like eviction notices. While my cancer is now somewhat “stalled” (or “behaving itself” as my oncologist puts it) a stalled cancer is not really what I’m hoping for. Immunotherapy is the best hope for a true cure for many of us with cancer.

The concept of immunotherapy is exciting because of the potential to completely change the protocols of past methodologies of “poison” (chemo), “cut” (surgery) and “burn” (radiation).  I have a dream that oncology will move out of the draconian, but necessary, options of the past into a methodology of the future.

Are there things that surprise you about the cancer experience?

I think the idea of an immunological response to cancer is the holy grail of cancer research. If the PD1 process by which cancers disguise themselves as “good guys” can be removed by an “anti-PD1 or PDL1”, then white blood cells and T-cells can be set loose in the body to destroy the cancer, a cure would be possible. It seems we’re close to that. A scourge on humanity since the time of the australopithecines may have found its match!

What would you want another patient to know about immunotherapy or about participating in a clinical trial?

There’s an expression: “Hope for everything. Expect nothing.” That’s what I do. Life isn’t always fair; we just have to make the best of what we’re given.

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