February 20, 2015, is the day I received the news. I was 40 years old, a mother of two daughters, a wife and a daughter of a survivor. I was diagnosed with stage 3a non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) poorly mixed with adenocarcinoma, and the prognosis was grim. I promptly told the attending doctor he didn’t know me, my mom or my god. I would not only survive this, I would beat it. My treatment began in a rural clinic in central Texas, where traditional treatments of a paclitaxel/carboplatin cocktail were used with 30 rounds of radiation thrown in for good measure. I was physically and mentally exhausted with very low blood counts.
After 13 rounds of chemotherapy, I began searching for other options. My search led me to The Lung Institute at Baylor College of Medicine. I learned more in 15 minutes at Baylor about my condition than I had learned in four months at the rural clinic. I discovered that I was an excellent candidate for the new FDA approved drug nivolumab. This drug is an immunotherapy drug, and it differs from traditional chemotherapy. It basically trains the immune system to recognize cancer cells and attack them.
Once T-cells can recognize cancer and attack it, you have cancer-fighting cells the rest of your life. The side effects are less toxic and no hair loss or low blood counts are experienced. I have young daughters, so my hair returning made my battle less frightening for them. I appeared healthy and felt better as well. The energy to resume my active lifestyle returned within a week of my first infusion of nivolumab.
My scans after eight, bi-weekly treatments of nivolumab brought the good news of remission. After 16 treatments, the scans showed no evidence of disease (NED). My oncologist and I decided after my 23rd treatment that my immune system was trained to fight any disease that may return. I rang the bell on September 13, 2016.
I still have scans every six months but have been treatment free for a year and NED for 20 months. I urge others to keep a good attitude and to do their research upon diagnosis. Do not let anyone hand you a death sentence; there are clinical trials and new drugs available. I am enjoying my second chance at life with my family and friends. Immunotherapy advocacy has also become a large part of my life thanks to the Cancer Research Institute. This organization is showcasing my story at a summit in Houston in January.
Awareness of treatment options is my goal; immunotherapy needs a larger platform. The importance of a good attitude and hope are a large part of the equation as well. I look forward to seeing my daughters grow up and start families of their own. Immunotherapy has given me my life back.