I was diagnosed with stage 4 nonsquamous non–small cell
lung cancer in 2012. Chemotherapy made me really sick
and nobody expected me to be alive today, much less still
doing well. But I’m receiving an immunotherapy called
nivolumab (Opdivo) through a clinical trial and it has
given me my life back. I feel great and I’m rarely at home
because I have a very full calendar that keeps me out and
about doing things that I think are fun.
My journey with cancer began when I went to a primary
care physician for the first time in 10 years at the end of
October in 2012. I had always been skinny, so after putting
on a lot of weight I thought I had a thyroid problem and
decided to make an appointment.
During the exam, the doctor felt a knot on my collarbone
and ordered a CT scan. The scan results showed that I
didn’t have a thyroid problem but there were some “funny
cells” that needed checking out with a PET scan.
I didn’t think to ask what a PET scan was but I read on the
internet later that it is often used to detect cancer. Even
though I had had an inkling I might have cancer, I still
cried a few tears when the doctor called to tell me that
the PET scan showed I had stage 4 lung cancer. I had
been hoping that it was going be anything but lung cancer
because my experience with the disease had not been
good. My dad had died of lung cancer at age 49.
Even though the primary care physician was not a doctor
I knew before this journey began, she took me and my
husband under her wing and really guided us through the
whole process. I call her my angel doctor. When she called
to tell me that I had lung cancer, she had already set up
an appointment for me the next day with an oncologist
and we went back to visit her after each oncologist
appointment. When we told her that the oncologist had
arranged for a biopsy appointment several weeks after we
saw him, she got on the phone and had the appointment
moved to that very day.
The biopsy showed that I had nonsquamous non–small
cell lung cancer, and I immediately started on a cocktail
of chemotherapy—carboplatin, pemetrexed (Alimta), and
bevacizumab (Avastin). The tumors did respond to the
chemotherapy, but the treatment also made me really sick.
During my chemotherapy it was difficult for me to walk
from my living room to my kitchen. Eventually my body
couldn’t handle it anymore and the oncologist switched
me to a maintenance therapy.
But that still made me sick, so after about eight weeks I
stopped all treatments and the tumors began to grow
immediately. At that point, my oncologist told me I had
two options. One was chemotherapy that he said usually
didn’t work as well as the chemotherapy I had already
received and had worse side effects. The other was a
clinical trial. I thought for about one minute and I chose
the clinical trial.
I began the clinical trial in July 2013, at The University
of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and I’m still on
it. I’ve had a really excellent response to nivolumab. My
tumors haven’t gone away, but they haven’t changed
since I started nivolumab, they just sit there. Sometimes
the radiologist who reads the CT scans I have every six
weeks calls them scars, although my oncologist doesn’t
agree with that.
Nivolumab has been a miracle drug for me, especially
compared with chemotherapy. The only side effect I have,
ironically, is that my thyroid stopped working so I have
to take a pill for that every day. I live my life like I did
before my diagnosis, I run drills with my dogs several days
a week, and I barely realize that I’m being treated for lung
I’ve heard that adult participation in clinical trials is
extremely low, but I tell anybody who will listen that being
in a clinical trial has saved my life.
donna fernandez // age 61 // ro WLe TT, TeXas
CAnCeR thAnKs to