From stage 4 lung cancer to a 50th wedding anniversary

A clinical trial gave Patricia hope that she will celebrate more family milestones

In August 2017, Patricia developed a wheeze and a rattle that was different than her past bouts with asthma and allergies. Plus, she felt tired all the time. Nearly every three weeks she went back to her doctor.

“I was the picture of health, so the doctors probably thought it was something simple,” says Patricia, a 67-year-old retired hardware store manager who lives in Wyandotte.

Asthma inhalers and antibiotics helped a little, but the symptoms were still there. Her X-rays and CT scan indicated she had pneumonia. However, in April 2018, a biopsy showed adenocarcinoma, a cancer that may mimic the symptoms of pneumonia and even may looks like pneumonia on imaging tests. The news was devastating.

Patricia was referred to Mona Vekaria, M.D., a medical oncologist at Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital. Unfortunately, Dr. Vekaria had more bad news: The cancer had advanced to stage 4 and could not be cured with surgery or radiation therapy.

A clinical trial would be Patricia’s best option.

Novel, experimental treatment for stage 4 lung cancer

As a part Patricia’s initial evaluation, Dr. Vekaria ordered sophisticated molecular studies to examine her cancer cells.

Results showed Patricia’s cancer was positive for a mutation in the EGFR gene. Having this mutation makes the cancer sensitive to specific oral precision medications that kill the cancer by targeting mutated gene in the cancer cells. But these oral precision medications are largely available only through clinical trials.

To find a clinical trial that would offer Patricia the most effective therapy, Dr. Vekaria referred her to the Thoracic Oncology Clinic at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.

Patricia’s daughter-in-law, Michelle, who is a nurse practitioner, was excited to learn that medical oncologist Igor Rybkin, M.D., Ph.D., would be caring for her mother-in-law. Not only did Michelle know Dr. Rybkin from their time working at the University of Michigan — she also knew his work leading a robust lung cancer clinical trial program at Henry Ford.

Dr. Rybkin found a qualifying clinical trial for Patricia. The trial included a treatment that combines an oral inhibitor of EGFR gene with novel, experimental oral medication — a combination designed to enhance and prolong the effect of EGFR inhibitor.

It’s been more than a year since Patricia began therapy and she’s going great. Her pneumonia symptoms are long gone. Her cancer team says she’s had a great response to the cancer to the therapy.

“I thank God for the miracles of chemistry. These new drugs are doing so well. The size of the mass has greatly decreased. Most of the little specks in my lung are gone, and the fuzziness in the other lung is nearly gone. I’m out shopping, gardening, and running around like nothing’s wrong,” says Patricia, a Master Gardener and commissioner on the Wyandotte Beautification Commission.

Patricia’s advice: Focus on the positive

Patricia’s advice to patients reveals another truth: As hard as it is, stay positive. Surround yourself with positive people. Some people can’t deal with cancer, and they walk out of your life. Cultivate new friends, talk openly, and accept help.

“At Henry Ford, they genuinely care about you as a person, healing you, and sending you out into the world so you can live your life,” says Patricia. “I know this cancer is terminal. I’m not ignoring the facts. But I try to stay as positive as possible. I don’t let small things bother me.”

Patricia celebrated her grandson’s high school graduation this past summer — a milestone she didn’t think she’d see when first diagnosed. Now her short-term goal is to reach her 50th wedding anniversary in two years.

“I want to live as long as I can and enjoy every minute of it,” she says.

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