Thriving After Lung Cancer, Thanks to a Clinical Trial

March 02, 2018 6:00 AM

One cancer patient’s immunotherapy clinical trial, an approach with hopeful results, could have implications for others seeking treatment.

Every cancer patient who joins a clinical trial runs the risk of not responding to the new drug or treatment being studied. That outcome didn’t keep Myles Widmer from feeling hopeful.

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The 73-year-old had two choices: “I could die sitting there doing nothing or I could die fighting,” he says. “I decided to fight.”

His fight was ongoing. After a diagnosis of stage 3 non-small cell lung cancer in 2011, Widmer was treated with chemotherapy and radiation. For a while, everything looked good.

But in April of 2013, surveillance scans showed that his cancer recurred; he now had stage 4 lung cancer. Widmer went through two different chemotherapy treatments. Both provided only short-term benefit and didn’t stop the cancer from growing.

Under the care of Shirish M. Gadgeel, M.D., co-leader of the Thoracic Oncology Research Program at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, Widmer agreed to participate in an immunotherapy clinical trial.

How immunotherapy works

Immunotherapy is a newer approach to treating cancer that harnesses the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells. Normally, the immune system should be able to attack cancer cells. But cancers, as they grow, fool the patient’s immune system into thinking that it is normal tissue.

SEE ALSO: Immunotherapy: The Future of Cancer Treatment?

Through a range of techniques, immunotherapy can help a patient’s immune system recognize the cancer, attack it and thus:

  • Stop or slow the growth of cancer cells

  • Stop cancer from spreading to new parts of the body

  • Help the immune system better destroy cancer cells

Widmer began the trial treatment in November 2013. And while prior research suggested the patient’s condition was unlikely to change, the effects were significant.

“For years, it was thought immunotherapy wouldn’t work for lung cancer,” Gadgeel says. “For Mr. Widmer, it produced dramatic benefits. His cancer shrank very much. After two years, his treatment stopped.

“Two years after that, there has been no progression of the cancer on his scans.”

Wider-reaching benefits

Not only is Widmer alive and well today, his personal decision to participate in clinical research has the potential to benefit others. He was one of the trial’s few patients whose cancer responded to treatment, giving researchers vital clues to developing future cures.

“Never before have we had the level of excitement and hope we have now because of advances in research,” Gadgeel says. “My expectation is that results from initial immunotherapy drugs will be built upon to develop new combinations that expand the pool of patients that derive such benefits.”

SEE ALSO: Depression and Cancer: Why Emotional Care Is Key During Treatment

Widmer visits the Cancer Center every three months for scans to monitor his progress. The Garden City, Michigan, resident is now retired and spends his free time watching his three grandsons play baseball, basketball and tennis.

“I go as often as I can to games. I travel to tournaments. I don’t have much to do to treat cancer anymore. My scans look good,” he says.

Learn about clinical trials for lung and other cancers at the University of Michigan or call the Cancer AnswerLine at 800-865-1125.