Each week throughout Cancer Immunotherapy Month this June, we will introduce you to a patient who will tell their cancer story on video, from learning diagnosis to enrolling in clinical trials and receiving immunotherapy as treatment. We hope by sharing their stories that you or a loved one will become more informed about cancer immunotherapy and the patient experience.
Empowerment and Triple-Negative Breast Cancer: Karen’s Immunotherapy Story
"My goal is to inspire and empower others to take charge of their medical narratives and to give them strength."
When Karen’s triple-negative breast cancer returned, she sought out an immunotherapy clinical trial, convinced there were better options out there. As of June 2021, Karen has been cancer-free for over one year.
Following surgery and chemotherapy for stage 1 triple-negative breast cancer, Karen took charge of her cancer narrative by researching other treatment options and talking to experts during a brief period of remission. When her cancer returned in 2017—this time metastatic—she was facing a life expectancy of 18 to 24 months, but she was prepared to try something new.
She enrolled in a phase 1 trial combining two immunotherapies: bempegaldesleukin (BEMPEG; NKTR-214) and nivolumab (Opdivo®). Her first CT scan, after eight weeks of immunotherapy, revealed a 72% reduction in tumors. In June 2020, Karen’s oncologist declared her “an official complete responder.” Her cancer immunotherapy experience has impassioned her to become a patient advocate and educator.
Genetic Counseling for Better Colon Cancer Treatment: Michaela’s Immunotherapy Story
"I am the first in three generations to survive this far because of my immunotherapy treatment."
With a family history of cancer, Michaela was not surprised by a diagnosis of colon cancer. However, genetic counseling and knowledge of Lynch syndrome led her to an immunotherapy clinical trial that saved her life. As of June 2021, Michaela has been cancer-free for over two years.
In 2016, Michaela gifted herself with an appointment with a genetic counselor to gain insight into why her immediate as well as several extended family members had been diagnosed and subsequently died of cancer. The genetic counselor found she has Lynch syndrome, an inherited mutation that leads to cancers of the colon and uterus at an early age. Two months later, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and given 1-2 years to live. Michaela and her family did not accept this prognosis and, armed with their knowledge of Lynch syndrome, found an immunotherapy clinical trial of pembrolizumab (Keytruda®).
After roughly one year on the trial, she has no trace of cancer in her colon. Today, Michaela introduces herself as a Mother Warrior Cancer Survivor: the first survivor in three generations on her mother’s Isleta Pueblo bloodline.
Family First in the Face of Kidney Cancer: Mike’s Immunotherapy Story
"I trust my daughter with my life. She is part daughter, part counselor. She has knowledge that I don’t have."
Surprised with a diagnosis of kidney cancer, Mike turned to his family for guidance and support and enrolled in a combination immunotherapy clinical trial. As of June 2021, Mike's cancer is under control with combination treatment.
In 2019, Mike Blevins felt a deep, sharp pain in his side and went to a nearby hospital, where he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He called his daughter, a surgical tech, who told him to get a second opinion. The second doctor confirmed the diagnosis, found that the cancer had metastasized, and recommended a clinical trial combining two immunotherapies: ipilimumab (Yervoy®) and nivolumab (Opdivo®). After another conversation with his family, Mike decided to enroll and, over the course of 10 months, the tumor shrank from 7.8cm to just about 3cm.
After two years of stability, the tumors started to grow again and Mike began a new regimen combining a different immunotherapy, pembrolizumab (Keytruda®), with chemotherapy. Recently retired, Mike now enjoys time with his kids and grandchildren, grateful to his family for their lifesaving advice and support along the way.
A New Future for Skin Cancer: Donna’s Immunotherapy Story
"Talk to your children about immunotherapy, explain it, that it's your own body healing itself and there's nothing better than nature itself"
When Donna was diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer in 2010, she and her family had few answers and few options. With help from a trusted care team, she went through years of difficult treatments before enrolling in a lifesaving immunotherapy clinical trial. Now, she and her family discuss their future together.
In 2010, Donna was diagnosed with a rare type of skin cancer known as infundibulocystic basal cell carcinoma. After several months of research, she found two oncologists who would guide her through a series of difficult treatments with the hope of getting to the next, better option.
In 2019, Donna received her first infusion of cemiplimab (Libtayo®) in a clinical trial at NYU Langone's Perlmutter Cancer Center. After three infusions, she saw noticeable changes in her tumors and has experienced only slight fatigue as a side effect. Today, she feels confident talking about the future with her husband and children.
Choosing Hope Over Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia: Kristin’s Immunotherapy Story
"Really it was just the hope it brought for us—the clinical trial. Maybe this could work, maybe this could give me the gift of more time, maybe this could cure me."
When standard treatments failed to keep Kristin's acute lymphoblastic leukemia at bay, she enrolled in a clinical trial of a CAR T cell therapy. As of June 2021, Kristin has been cancer-free for over seven years.
In 2010, Kristin Kleinhofer was feeling healthy when she found a bump on the ride side of her head and thought it was just a “harmless cyst.” After her mother suggested she see a doctor, Kristin met with an oncologist and she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. When standard treatments failed to keep Kristin's cancer at bay, she enrolled in a clinical trial of a CAR T cell therapy in 2014.
Two weeks before Christmas, a bone marrow biopsy confirmed that the cancer was gone and Kristin was in remission. “It was the best Christmas gift” for Kristin and her entire family. Now, Kristin celebrates life with her family and partner Benny, checking travel and other adventures off her bucket list.
A New Norm for Skin Cancer Patients: Dale’s Immunotherapy Story
"I'm hopeful that one day this may be the norm instead of the unusual."
After Dale exhausted several treatment options for cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma, he enrolled in a clinical trial testing a PD-1 blocking antibody called cemiplimab (Libtayo®). As of June 2021, Dale has been cancer-free for over four years.
Like many of us, Dale spent a lot of time in the sun and didn't think to protect his skin from harmful UV radiation. Years later, he developed scaly patches of actinic keratosis that later progressed to cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common type of skin cancer. Surgeries, skin grafts, and chemotherapy failed to prevent Dale's tumors from spreading. Concerned about his future and having exhausted standard treatment options, Dale enrolled in a clinical trial testing a PD-1 blocking antibody called cemiplimab. Almost immediately his tumors began to disappear. Today, Dale has no evidence of cancer and is able to continue living his life with his wife, Donna, and his two children.
Drumming Back Oral Cancer: Rikki Rockett's Immunotherapy Story
"You'll never be too old to rock a stage."
When oral cancer threatened to leave Rikki Rockett speechless, the drummer for Poison found an immunotherapy clinical trial with a PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor. As of June 2021, Rikki has been cancer-free for over three years.
In June 2015, Rikki visited his primary care doctor with a sore throat. His doctor found a small tumor at the base of his tongue, and Rikki learned he had human papillomavirus (HPV)-related oral cancer. He endured nine rounds of chemotherapy and 37 sessions of radiation therapy. The tumor initially responded, but returned three months later, spreading to his lymph nodes. Rikki then saw Dr. Ezra Cohen at UCSD Moores Cancer Center, who helped him enroll in a clinical trial of pembrolizumab (Keytruda®). Rikki’s tumor responded immediately. Just over two months into the trial, a scan revealed that his tumor had shrunk over 90%. Today Rikki is cancer-free, enjoys playing with his band, Poison, caring for his two children, and practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Fighting Lung Cancer: Oswald's Immunotherapy Story
"You have to decide either it's gonna win or I'm gonna win, and the immunotherapy makes it possible for you to win because you have a partner in the fight."
Following diagnosis with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer, Oswald began first-line treatment with a PD-1 checkpoint immunotherapy. As of June 2021, Oswald is cancer-free for over two years.
On New Years Day 2017, Oswald woke up extremely sick. After a week of illness and wanting the best care possible, he left Brooklyn and went to Columbia University Medical Center where he was diagnosed with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer. With a PD-L1 score of 80 percent, he was eligible for a newly approved first-line treatment with pembrolizumab (Keytruda®), a PD-L1 checkpoint immunotherapy. Almost immediately, he felt different; today, he has no evidence of disease. Now, every day is like a New Years Day for Oswald, and he looks forward to dancing in Trinidad's Carnival next year.
Immunotherapy patient stories are part of the Cancer Research Institute's Answer to Cancer Patient Education Program. We're proud to premiere these videos during our annual Cancer Immunotherapy Month.
Discover more immunotherapy patient stories in our ImmunoCommunity