Anaplastic thyroid cancer patient approaches each day as an adventure
59-year-old John Lange was focused on his work for a commercial airline and looking forward to a long, active retirement when, in December 2015, he came down with an upper respiratory infection and experienced swelling in his tonsils and lymph nodes.
A month later, John’s infection was gone, but the swelling in his right lymph node had significantly worsened. He made an appointment with a general physician for the following month. His doctor immediately ordered an X-ray, which showed a large tumor on his thyroid that had spread to his neck and lungs. After a biopsy on March 8, 2016, John was diagnosed with metastatic anaplastic thyroid cancer, a rare and aggressive form of the disease.
“My local oncologist said there was no known positive outcome for anaplastic thyroid cancer, and suggested I make immediate arrangements for my affairs,” John says. “But I wanted to see what God had to say about it.”
He decided to approach his diagnosis as an adventure, focusing on quality of life over quantity of years.
Treatment for anaplastic thyroid cancer
John’s oncologist recommended that he travel from his home in San Antonio, Texas, to MD Anderson because “they are doing research that isn’t published yet that might benefit you significantly.” He had an appointment with Maria Cabanillas, M.D., within a week.
“It’s an incredibly comforting feeling to know that your care is their primary concern,” John says of MD Anderson. “I found that to be very humbling. Everyone I’ve encountered has been incredibly supportive.”
Since John’s tumor was so large that it affected his breathing, doctors recommended a procedure called a tracheostomy to allow more air to reach his lungs. He declined, though, because he says he “likes to talk more than he likes to breathe.” Instead, he opted for a new thyroid cancer treatment that had shown promise in a small study.
Since the end of March, John has taken an oral targeted therapy called lenvatinib once a day to delay growth of his tumors. Recently, he began taking an immunotherapy drug, pembrolizumab, traditionally prescribed for metastatic melanoma patients. John believes the combination of the drugs is extending his survival.
Appreciation for life with anaplastic thyroid cancer
While his anaplastic thyroid cancer treatment has caused some side effects and changed his taste buds so that he no longer enjoys spicy foods, John still appreciates the spice of life.
On medical leave from his job, he recently went on an Alaskan cruise, traveled along the West Coast and continues to kayak. When his friends convinced him to give away his beloved motorcycle, he got a recumbent tricycle. This spring, he hopes to go on a sailing trip.
“Everybody brings to the table their life experiences and the foundations that their lives are built on,” John says. “You can’t really pick and choose them. I have found cancer to be an adventure and an opportunity to meet some terrific people I never would have met otherwise.”
An investment in time
As a result of thyroid cancer, John says he has grown closer to and is enjoying more time with his sister and friends. He recently re-united with his ex-wife, something he attributes to “cancer and Facebook.” While he was religious prior to his thyroid cancer diagnosis, he has invested more time in his bible studies and in strengthening his relationship with God.
Faced with the gravity of his anaplastic thyroid cancer diagnosis, John remains upbeat and is taking life one day at a time. He offers this advice, “For those blessed with more time, I would invest it wisely.”