Joseph Matthews, 53, knows the drive from Beaumont to Houston, TX, like the back of his hand. After being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2011, Joseph, a refinery mechanic and father of two, went to MD Anderson Cancer Center for treatment. His physician, Padmanee Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., told him about a promising new immunotherapy drug called ipilimumab, and recommended he participate in a clinical trial of this drug, along with surgery.
Ipilimumab (trade name Yervoy®, made by Bristol Myers-Squibb) is a checkpoint inhibitor that targets the “brake system” of T cells. By helping to “take the brakes off” the T cells, the drug enables a more powerful immune response against cancer.
From January through March 2012, Joseph and his wife, Angela, would wake up before sunrise and drive from Beaumont to Houston, returning late in the evening after a full day of treatments and tests. But it was well worth the travel and long days: he and his wife credit the immunotherapy treatment with saving his life.
Joseph has been cancer-free for more than a year and reports that he is “doing wonderful.” TheAnswertoCancer (TheA2C) spoke with Joseph about his cancer journey.
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.
I had my wife with me. She didn’t cry, but she was emotional. In my family, cancer ran rampant. My mother, her siblings, and 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.
It was really a simple decision. They explained that it could possibly have advantages for me with the type of cancer I had. There was also the chance that this research would possibly help others down the line, maybe even my own kids.
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 [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.
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 5:00. 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’ve 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.
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.
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.
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*Immunotherapy results may vary from patient to patient.
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Rare and ultra-rare cancers affect around 20,000 people in the United States alone, according to Foundation Medicine, Inc. Immunotherapy research in some of the more common cancers and the identification of biomarkers that can predict patient responses is opening this new approach to cancer treatment up to patients whose cancers currently receive little direct attention.
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