K.C. was initially diagnosed with stage 3b NSC lung cancer in February 2015. After receiving chemotherapy and radiation, her healthcare team was not optimistic—her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and progressed to stage 4. K.C. sought a second opinion in Houston and began treatment of nivolumab. She responded to the immunotherapy immediately. She completed treatment in September 2016, and today she remains disease free. K.C. continues to work full-time and experiences new adventures with her husband and two daughters.
I was experiencing facial swelling and fatigue which I contributed this to allergies. I was taken to the emergency room for shortness of breath and the CT scan revealed a large mass in the center of my chest. The oncologist on call that evening only gave me 30 to 90 days to live due to the position of the mass. I told him He didn't know me or my God and that he was mistaken. I began emergency radiation treatment 3 days later.
The first time I heard the word immunotherapy was in Dr. Zhang's office, she explained to me how it works. Some tumors produce a protein that works like a mask, making it invisible to the immune system. The immunotherapy takes the mask off the cancer cells and your immune system can recognize it and attack it. I thought this was amazing, and immediately wanted to be treated with nivolumab. I had a week between the initial consultation and the infusion, that week was spent online researching the drug. The first page I clicked on was the CRI website. I watched patient story videos of Maureen O'Grady and Pam Griffith and felt immediately at ease. I then graduated to watching the scientific videos explaining check point inhibitors. I learned about the research Dr. Jim Allison and other scientists are working on to save lives. The CRI website has a wealth of information.
Treatment with immunotherapy was so much easier than what I expected. I would arrive at my appointment and check in, the nurse would call me back for my labs to be drawn. I would then go back out to the waiting area and wait to be called in for my appointment with Dr. Zhang. During my appointment she would update me on my levels and ask me general questions on how I had been feeling the past 2 weeks. After the appointment I would go to the infusion center for treatment. This whole process took about 3 hours from arrival to completion. The longest wait would be for the pharmacist to mix the nivolumab - the dosage was based on my current weight. The only side effect I ever experienced was flu like symptoms after the very first infusion. I was told this was a good thing because it meant I was having an immune response to the treatment. I began to feel better immediately after treatment.
I had chemo and radiation initially. It was brutal. First, it was an all day appointment, and second, I had to skip a several treatments because my blood counts were not up to par. I was on blood thinners and had low platelets (27). Around the 20th out of 30 radiation treatments the skin on my chest and back began to blister and burn. I had a hard time swallowing around this time because the radiation was killing the cells lining my esophagus. I was on steroids as well, and I had developed the typical moon face from the prednisone. I was loosing my hair in large clumps. The first thing Dr. Zhang did was take me off all medications. The immunotherapy stimulated my immune system to fight the cancer and did not need help from any other toxic drug. I began to feel better immediately. My coloring improved as well as my counts and weight, my hair returned. I was no longer sick.
I am a private person. When first diagnosed I told few people about my illness. I did not want any negativity. An advanced stage lung cancer diagnosis several years ago was usually terminal. I knew my case was inoperable, and the statistics were not good but I knew I would survive. I didn't want to hear anyone's lung cancer experience that was not positive.
As I began immunotherapy, my reservations about sharing my illness vanished - I feel immunotherapy is a beneficial treatment and needs more exposure. There is a stigma associated with cancer, especially lung cancer, as being a automatic death sentence. I have become more vocal about patient advocacy and research since my success with this treatment. Cancer Research Institute has given advocates a great platform to promote immunotherapy. In sharing my story with others I have gained confidence that I didn't have before.
Just because immunotherapy is a relatively new treatment doesn't mean its experimental or risky. I was monitored more closely on immunotherapy than chemo and radiation. I knew my oncologist was looking out for my best interests by placing me on this treatment. The research conducted today is groundbreaking. Treatment and response times are getting shorter and patients are living longer. All of this is possible because of clinical trials. The immune system has the ability to recognize and kill cancer cells, it just has to be trained properly. My quality of life has not been compromised with this treatment, in fact I feel just as healthy as I did before diagnosis.
I am grateful to be a patient who responded to immunotherapy. My hope is that one day immunotherapy will be the only treatment needed for a cancer diagnosis. Thankfully, Immunotherapy made lung cancer a mere chapter in my life story.
Provide guidance and encouragement to others going through their journey with cancer immunotherapy treatment.
*Immunotherapy results may vary from patient to patient.
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