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.
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.
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-juitsu.
Taking a Chance on Clinical Trials: Debbie's Immunotherapy Story
"I heard about immunotherapy from my doctor, and when I found that out, I just had hope."
The stakes couldn’t have been higher after Debbie was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer. Faced with few options, she pressed her luck to get into a clinical trial of an immunotherapy combination and hit the jackpot.
Just before Christmas in 2014, Debbie Guadagno was looking forward to spoiling her grandkids with presents and spending time at family events. She had no idea that a tumor the size of a football was growing on her kidney until a routine blood test showed elevated calcium levels and she was sent for further testing. Scans showed that the cancer had spread to her liver, lung, and spine. Told she had 18 months to live at best, she found her way "through a stroke of luck" into a clinical trial testing a combination of two immunotherapies—ipilimumab (Yervoy®) and nivolumab (Opdivo®)—as a first-line treatment following surgical removal of the tumor. With the help of her husband, Gary, and sister, Cindy, Debbie made it to all her appointments, receiving treatment for two years before going off the trial. In April of this year—more than four years after her diagnosis—she was declared cancer-free by her medical team.
Kidney Cancer, Family, and the Right Combination: Rick's Immunotherapy Story
"They use the term 'super-responder,' I like to think of myself as super-cured."
Rick's family needed their father more than ever when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and he was able to be there thanks to a combination immunotherapy clinical trial.
In 2015, Rick saw his doctor with a bad cough. Months later his wife, Dixie, discovered a lump on his chest. After a biopsy and an initial misdiagnosis of breast cancer, Rick went to MD Anderson Cancer Center for a second opinion. In 2016, weak and hardly able to lift his two-year-old grandson, Rick learned he had stage 4 kidney cancer. Dixie and their daughter, Katie, advocated for Rick to enroll in a clinical trial, combining immunotherapy drugs nivolumab (Opdivo®) and bevacizumab (Avastin®). After Rick’s third infusion, CT scans showed "dramatic results—the chest tumor had shrunk by 40% and the liver tumor by 25%." Rick sees his doctor for scans every four months and has not received any cancer treatment for the past 18 months. He is grateful to have his life back, to return to full-time work as an engineer, and to be "pop-pop" to his three grandchildren.
Genetics, Risk, and Hope with Ampullary Cancer: Adrienne's Immunotherapy Story
"Research not only saved my life but will potentially save members of my family."
Genetic testing revealed that Adrienne had Lynch Syndrome, which put her at risk of the ampullary cancer she later developed. Genetic testing also revealed the tumor biomarkers that got her into the immunotherapy clinical trial that cured her cancer.
In 2005, Adrienne learned she had Lynch syndrome, an inherited genetic mutation that significantly increased her risk for several types of cancer. Eight years later, she was diagnosed with metastatic ampullary cancer. She underwent 13 months of chemotherapy, which did not work. When genetic testing of Adrienne’s tumor showed it was microsatellite instability-high (MSI-H), her oncologist recommended she enroll in a clinical trial for pembrolizumab (Keytruda®). Just over two months later, the cancer was gone. She continued to receive treatment for two years, traveling from her home in New York to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Over two years since her last treatment, she remains cancer-free and has returned to her busy life working, spending time with her four daughters, practicing yoga, playing tennis, and traveling with friends and family.
Preventing Esophageal Cancer Recurrence: Michelle's Immunotherapy Story
"They need me to be the rock, and I can be the rock because I did that trial."
With a high risk of recurrence, Michelle wanted to do everything she could to stop her esophageal cancer from coming back and enrolled in an immunotherapy clinical trial.
Originally diagnosed in July 2016, her treatment plan progressed very quickly, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. Michelle’s family and coworkers helped support her throughout treatment. Declared cancer-free by the end of December 2016, she considered her next steps to stay cancer-free. In February 2017, Michelle met with Dr. Deirdre Cohen at NYU Langone Health, who recommended Michelle enroll in a clinical trial of nivolumab (Opdivo®). Over a year later, Michelle remains cancer-free and can plan new adventures with her husband and daughter.
Immunotherapy patient stories are part of the Cancer Research Institute's Answer to Cancer Patient Education Program. We're proud to premiere these five videos during our Seventh Annual Cancer Immunotherapy Month.
Discover more immunotherapy patient stories in our ImmunoCommunity