How Immunotherapy Saved a Stage 4 Cancer Patient’s Life
Diane Lucey has long hair. That's not noteworthy in itself — after all, so do lots of women. But long hair is significant for a woman who has just undergone cancer treatment, which Lucey has. A combination of precision medicine and immunotherapy not only saved her life, but spared her the difficult side effects that are common for cancer patients.
From Stage 1 to Stage 4
Lucey's cancer journey started in January of 2014, when she asked her dentist to check out a spot that had recently developed in her mouth. He sent her to an oral surgeon. A biopsy revealed a diagnosis of neuroendocrine carcinoma.
While there was some good news – it was stage one – she still had to undergo a stressful process of surgery to remove the spot, endure 30 sessions of radiation, and deal with weight loss and fatigue. However, it all seemed worth it as subsequent scans performed in 2014 and 2015 found no signs of cancer.
She said yes to a new job, moved to Leonardtown, Maryland, and moved forward with her life. Life was going very well for Lucey. Unfortunately, that all changed abruptly in 2016.
Lucey went in for a routine scan with Amir Khan, MD, an oncologist at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital. Dr. Khan discovered that not only had Lucey's cancer come back, but it had metastasized and spread to other parts of her body – specifically in her lungs and liver. Her diagnosis? Stage four.
Lucey remembers her sister, who had accompanied her to her appointment, starting to cry. But she didn't allow herself to do the same. "I’m not going to cry about this," she remembered thinking. "This is what it is, and we just gotta go from here."
Finding Answers in New Treatments
Dr. Khan formed a treatment plan right away and sent Lucey to Louis Weiner, MD, director of MedStar Georgetown University Hospital’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Weiner was able to precisely analyze her cancer on a molecular level and found that it had mutated around 17 times.
Her body was fighting back.
While precision medicine and immunotherapy aren’t as widely known as treatment options like chemotherapy and radiation, Lucey had learned about them while researching her choices. She was hopeful that a combination of precision medicine and immunotherapy might work for her, and she was prepared to advocate for herself.
As it turned out, she didn't need to fight for the treatment that she wanted. "When I met with Dr. Weiner, I was prepared to bring up precision medicine and immunotherapy — but he initiated the conversation," she recalled.
She was relieved: "I wanted to hear something other than chemotherapy and radiation, which can really be devastating."
The Treatment Journey and Her Outcomes
In October, she began her immunotherapy treatment. Every two weeks, she would make the 10-minute drive from her home to MedStar St. Mary's, where she received injections of the immunotherapy nivolumab. Other than treatment days, she didn't have to miss any work.
Having cancer never affected her daily routines, and she never suffered any major side effects except one small rash on her stomach.
As optimistic as Lucey was about the treatment, the results have exceeded even her expectations. Six weeks into the process, a scan revealed that the mass on her liver had shrunk by half, and the tumors on her lungs were shrinking too. After an additional six rounds of treatment, even better news: The lung tumors were gone, and the liver mass – while still present – had continued to shrink.
Lucey is incredibly grateful for the success of her treatment, and for the people who have cared for her and supported her along the way. "Everybody at MedStar has been wonderful. The doctors, the nurses, even the receptionist, Rachel — I love her!"
If she could say one thing to the staff at MedStar, it would be a simple message: "Thank you," she said. "Dr. Weiner and Dr. Khan especially, but the whole staff. I'd hug them all. And I probably have!"