Last year, my husband, Rick, started to feel awful, but he couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong. He'd had a bad cough and terrible drainage for several months. Over a four month period, we went to lots of different doctors to figure out what was wrong.
I remember the exact day I knew we were seeing all the wrong doctors. In January, Rick was putting Christmas boxes in the attic. I could see he was struggling getting those heavy boxes where they needed to be. Afterward, a large lump appeared on his chest. After a biopsy at a doctor’s office, we were told Rick had breast cancer. I thought it was very strange since he has nine sisters with no history of breast cancer.
Rick’s boss pointed us to the Shell Cancer Manager Program, an enhanced cancer benefit to the insurance plans provided by his employer, Shell. Finally, after a CT scan at MD Anderson early in 2016, we learned earlier Rick had stage IV kidney cancer. There was a large tumor on his left kidney and smaller tumors in both lungs, liver, chest area and several areas in the bone.
When I pushed Rick’s wheelchair through the doors of MD Anderson that first time, he felt like he wasn’t going to make it. He was always tired and in pain. He couldn’t even pick up our two-year-old grandson, Jacob, who calls Rick “Pop-Pop.”
Choosing a Nivolumab and Bevacizumab clinical trial
At MD Anderson, Matthew Campbell, M.D., indicated Rick might qualify for a promising immunotherapy clinical trial. We had read a few newspaper articles about clinical trials. We asked lots of questions and took detailed notes before feeling comfortable with our decision. The next couple of weeks were filled with diagnostic testing. A kidney biopsy confirmed Rick had clear cell kidney cancer.
After qualifying for the trial, Rick started receiving infusions of the immunotherapy drugs Nivolumab and Bevacizumab.
Rick’s treatment and recovery
Shortly after the first infusion, he was still weak but improving slightly every day. Rick stopped sleeping all the time, and I started weaning him off the powerful pain medications.
After the second infusion, Rick walked into the hospital instead of using a wheelchair. His nausea was almost gone, and he was able to work from home. Seeing Rick attend meetings remotely and pore over engineering drawings from his computer gave me hope that maybe we could beat this.
After Rick’s third infusion of Nivolumab and Bevacizumab, CT scans showed that the chest tumor had shrunk by 40% and the liver tumor by 25%. The tumors in the lungs could no longer be detected. Dr. Campbell called these results “dramatic.”
I remember when we first started this cancer journey, Rick told Dr. Campbell that he was going to be his “star pupil.” I didn’t believe it at the time, but I do now.
Our new normal
About a month after the third infusion, Rick had his left kidney and the associated tumor removed. After Jose Karam, M.D., performed the surgery, he told us the tumor was the size of a cantaloupe. I was shocked, and I think Dr. Karam was, too.
Just five weeks after his kidney surgery, scans show the tumors continue to shrink. The liver tumor is now the size of a small cyst. Rick will now receive infusions of just the Nivolumab every other week for the next 20 months, but he’s thankful to have his life back. I’m thankful to have my husband back.
Rick has returned to work full-time. He is also back to carrying around Jacob and is looking forward to the birth of another grandson later this year. Rick and I still have lots to look forward to, like weekend barbecues, fishing, a much-needed kitchen remodel and travel. We’re grateful to have more time to do these things and spend time with the people we love.