By traditional measures, Bill Smith’s treatment for stage 4 lung cancer was an extraordinary success.
With a typical life expectancy upon diagnosis of just one year, Bill had survived five long years later, despite the cancer having spread to his brain, liver and even the humerus bone near one shoulder. Two Gamma Knife brain surgeries, an orthopedic surgery on his shoulder, radiation and countless rounds of chemotherapy had done their job.
Yet Bill – an attorney who retired from practicing law when his cancer treatments intensified – was miserable. “I was extremely fatigued. It was difficult to push forward,” Bill recalls. “My hope for a normal life was waning.”
That’s when his physician at Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Nathan Pennell, director of the lung cancer medical oncology program at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center and an expert in discovering novel therapies for cancer through clinical trials, felt it was time to try a different approach.
Nearly simultaneous with their initial meeting, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of a new drug Dr. Pennell believed would work well for Bill’s type of cancer. The immune checkpoint inhibitor – a form of immunotherapy – was designed to stimulate the immune system, enabling it to target and destroy the cancer.
“Immunotherapy doesn’t treat the cancer. It unleashes the immune system to allow it to attack it,” explains Dr. Pennell. “When it works, these drugs are extraordinary.”
And for Bill, it worked. Administered intravenously, in the same manner as chemotherapy drugs, the immunotherapy treatment was effective in eliminating the life-numbing side effects he had experienced during chemotherapy.
“To say the immunotherapy gave me a new lease on life is an understatement,” says Bill. “My quality of life improved immensely, and I didn’t have nearly as much fatigue.”
Even more important, Bill is now cancer free. After two years of treatment with the immunotherapy drug, and seven years after his initial diagnosis, Bill was able to end treatment in March 2017.
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Ten months later, his cancer remains in remission.
“With cancer, you never know for sure,” says Dr. Pennell. “But we have hope that he’ll never need another treatment again. Immunotherapy has become a viable treatment for many people, like Bill, who have run out of other options.”
While immunotherapy does not work for every cancer patient, it has, since 2015, replaced chemotherapy as treatment for about one-third of lung cancer patients, according to Dr. Pennell.
As for Bill, he feels better than ever, and is fully enjoying retirement and time spent with his family.
“I’m so grateful for the research that’s being done in the area of lung cancer,” Bill states. “Immunotherapy gave me my life back.”