Back from the Brink

Immunotherapy provides healthy, new path for lung cancer victims.

The promise of better weather, better schools for his sons and a better overall lifestyle in retirement prompted George Koehler to uproot his family and move from Long Island, New York to Florida 11 years ago.

Lung cancer survivor George Koehler is living a normal life now, thanks to immunotherapy and Dr. David Wenk.

Immunotherapy has George not only living, but enjoying life.

The relocation came as part of a complete lifestyle change for George, who had recently quit the smoking habit he’d started decades earlier. George learned a few years ago his decision to quit smoking came a bit too late to avoid any consequences.

An in-home service technician for Sears® at the time, George first detected trouble in 2014 when he began to experience sharp chest pains. Thinking at first that his chest pains were the result of a pulled muscle, he all but ignored the pains for nearly a year.

When the pains persisted, George eventually visited a doctor, who prescribed antibiotics. Dissatisfied with that doctor’s diagnosis, George’s wife insisted that George visit another doctor. This one ordered a chest x-ray that revealed the cause of the problem: cancer.

“That was a very, very hard pill to swallow,” says George, now 66 and retired. “I immediately thought the worst. We went to see a couple of other doctors to get their opinions on what to do next. They all gave us the same recommendation.”

That unanimous recommendation from the doctors George met with was to see David Wenk, MD, a board-certified specialist in medical oncology with Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute. George’s decision to heed the doctor’s advice proved to be a life-saving one.

Upon first visiting Dr. Wenk, George learned that what he actually had was Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer. It is the most common lung cancer discovered in patients in the United States, but at Stage IV, it is considered incurable.

“Historically, even if they are treated with a very aggressive form of chemotherapy, the survival rate for patients with Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer is about a year – and it’s not always a good year,” Dr. Wenk explains.

“With most patients, the chemotherapy usually just beats them up and weakens them to the point where they have to wonder just how much good the chemotherapy is doing, because the decline in the quality of life is so great.”

Change of Course

George was facing just such a set of circumstances when he first began to be treated by Dr. Wenk, who initially followed the standard treatment protocol for lung cancer by prescribing an aggressive form of chemotherapy designed to shrink the tumor.

George then had surgery to remove the tumor and underwent several weeks of radiation treatments. It was in the wake of the radiation treatments that Dr. Wenk decided to alter the traditional course of therapy for George.

The alteration came as a result of the advent of immunotherapy, which is the treatment of diseases such as cancer with drugs that either suppress or boost the immune system, and the development of the drug known as KEYTRUDA®.

Famous in part because it has effectively aided former President Jimmy Carter in his fight against advanced melanoma, KEYTRUDA was recently approved by the FDA as an agent to fight lung cancer.

At the time of George’s diagnosis, KEYTRUDA was considered an experimental drug and was being used only on a trial basis. That didn’t dissuade Dr. Wenk, who nevertheless prescribed a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy using KEYTRUDA for George.

“In my line of work, the evidence is changing on almost a daily basis,” Dr. Wenk says. “You have to adapt as new data is presented and make real-time decisions because if you wait for drug approvals to come, a lot of times, it’s too late.

“The regulatory approval process takes a long time, so if you can make decisions once the data is presented and not wait until an application is filed, your patients can start getting the benefits of these therapies right away.

“That’s how I approached the situation with George. I said to him, Look, this is not yet the standard, but it looks very promising based on clinical research, and together, we made the decision to go with the combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

“George has now been on KEYTRUDA alone for about two years, and incredibly, he has no evidence of disease. And this is a disease that should have killed him after a year. Instead, he’s living a normal life and looking like someone you’d never suspect had incurable Stage IV lung cancer.

“That’s why we call him the poster child for what immunotherapy can do for patients with lung cancer. It can literally turn cancer into a chronic disease like diabetes or high blood pressure that you can just treat, so that it’s not the death sentence that it once was.

“The reason immunotherapy works is because the immune system is the most powerful anticancer defense we have. It not only kills bacteria and viruses and keeps us healthy on a regular basis, but it also kills cancer cells.

“The problem is that certain cancers make proteins that help them hide from the immune system. What immunotherapy does is it allows the immune system to see those cancer cells and attack them. And it’s proving to be effective in fighting a lot of different cancers.

“It has recently been shown to be very effective in fighting certain types of breast cancer, liver cancer, kidney cancer, neck and head cancer and Hodgkin’s disease. You can pretty much run the gamut with it.”

A Small Price to Pay

George receives his KEYTRUDA treatments once every three weeks in the form of an intravenous drip that lasts about 30 minutes. The drug leaves him a bit fatigued, but he says that’s a small price to pay, considering the alternative.

“I don’t have the energy I used to have, but overall, I feel pretty good,” George says. “I have to fight through the fatigue a bit and sometimes force myself to get up and get involved in things, but that all comes with staying alive.”

George says he feels fortunate to have been directed to Dr. Wenk and the staff at Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute. Without them, he says, there’s no telling where he’d be today.

“Dr. Wenk and his nurse practitioner Patty Rogers are my two saints,” George exudes. “They’ve been there with me the whole way and are always just a phone call away. If ever I need anything, they take care of it.

“And Dr. Wenk is just amazing. Every time I sit down with him, I’m astonished by how much he knows about what’s available in cancer treatment today, about what works and what doesn’t work and what plan of action we should take.

“I’m in great hands with Dr. Wenk, and in great hands with everybody at Florida Cancer Specialists and Research Institute. They all know you by name and when you walk in there, they treat you like family. The whole place and everything they do there is absolutely fabulous.”

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