Cancer couldn’t conquer Jonathan Yaryan’s fighting spirit. The 77-year-old Vietnam veteran spent 30 years as an Air Force pilot, before retiring to Missouri City, Texas, in 2004 with his wife, Jeri. “I’ve had many close calls in my flying career, and I’ve looked at the grim reaper many times,” says Yaryan.
Retirement, however, did not go as planned: In 2011, Yaryan found himself battling for his life, once again, when he was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer. Under the care of Dr. Ana Aparicio and Dr. Padmanee Sharma of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Yaryan enrolled in a phase II clinical trial to test the immunotherapy ipilimumab (Yervoy™) in combination with the hormone therapy leuprolide (Lupron®). Ipilimumab—a drug developed by CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council director James P. Allison, Ph.D.—works by enhancing the ability of immune cells to destroy cancer cells.
Two years after beginning the clinical trial, Yaryan’s cancer is no longer holding him back. He spends his days babysitting his large brood of grandchildren, spending time with his wife, and taking long walks with his dog, Lucky. He is also a vocal advocate for clinical trials, particularly for late-stage cancer patients: “A lot of people are really hesitant to do these clinical trials, but if it’s offered, I encourage anybody to take advantage of it,” says Yaryan. “My cancer has now become a chronic disease and is well under control. I believe Lupron and the ipilimumab trial were critical.”
CRI: How did you react to your diagnosis of stage IV prostate cancer?
Mr. Yaryan: It’s like a big hit in the guts. Some of my family was there in the room when Dr. Aparicio gave me the [timeframe] we were working with. As I’m looking around the room, I’m thinking, “Holy mackerel! I gotta get tissues for everybody else.” All the tears had started flowing. I said, “Wow, I must be in worse shape than I thought I was!” [Laughs]
CRI: Tell me about the immunotherapy clinical trial you enrolled in at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Mr. Yaryan: The immunotherapy is called “ipi,” or Yervoy. It’s used for melanoma, and is presently in trials to prove that it will work on prostate cancer also. We started it immediately and, over approximately a year, the Yervoy and the hormones started to shrink the tumors. Then they asked me if I wanted to do surgery, and I said, “Absolutely.” I elected to do the robotic Da Vinci surgery. They took all my lymph nodes from my aorta down to the prostate. I was up and pretty much back to normal within two weeks.
CRI: What was your treatment like?
Mr. Yaryan: What people need to understand about these clinical trials is that you’re watched like you’re under a microscope. They have a research nurse who monitors your case closely, and they keep you so well informed that it’s very difficult to get scared. I wish I could tell you if there was anything negative going on, but I can’t think of anything. They tell you what the side effects are going to be—the lack of sleep, the diarrhea and things like that—and sure enough [Laughs], there they were! The diarrhea was the worst of it.
CRI: Why do you advocate for others to consider clinical trials?
Mr. Yaryan: I had a very good friend from high school that died recently from lung cancer, which metastasized to his brain. They offered him chemo, and he refused knowing that he had a death sentence. I think you should try everything available until you run out of options, and he was just the opposite. I went [to visit him], and he was in hospice. He’d lost 70 pounds and he looked like a ghost. It just tears your heart out, it really does. I think a patient like that would be a really good candidate for clinical trials. When you see you’ve got a death sentence, what have you got to lose? Try something that may, just may, be the answer.
CRI: How are you doing now?
Mr. Yaryan: I’m still in the clinical trial. The last three PSA tests—and they’re using that as an indicator of whether those little guys [tumors] are starting up again—were less than 1, which is a good sign. So now Dr. Aparicio’s got me on hormones ‘as required.’ I go in to MD Anderson every 90 days.
CRI: Do you feel this experience has changed how you live your life?
Mr. Yaryan: Once you get a scare like this, every minute becomes golden. I exercise more and eat better. I have a Labrador Retriever and she won’t let me off the hook. She wants to walk every morning, 3-5 miles every day without fail. She’s just my pride and joy. [Beat] Next to my wife, of course.