Harnessing his immune system to fight cancer
The tumors near Eugene Young‘s liver turned up by chance.
At the age of 67, he was dealing with symptoms of acid reflux. Thinking he may have a problem with his gallbladder, Young‘s doctor sent him for an ultrasound.
“That‘s the first I knew I had a problem,” Young says of the imaging test he underwent in February. It showed tumors in his liver, spleen, adrenal glands and bones. Weeks later, he had a biopsy — and a cancer diagnosis. What he needed was a cancer doctor.
He chose Abi Siva, MD, a medical oncologist at Upstate who thought Young would be a good candidate for immunotherapy, a medication that works with the body‘s immune system to fight cancer cells.
“She did some genetic testing,” Young recalls, “and found that I had the genes necessary for a good reaction to Opdivo.” That‘s a new medication also known as nivolumab.
Young‘s treatment included intravenous infusions of the drug every couple of weeks. After four doses, he developed some unusual side effects. His vision became blurry, he lost some hearing, and he developed some dizziness. Steroid treatments have helped improve his vision and hearing, he says.
Before he started taking the medication, he had an imaging test called a positron-emission tomography scan that reveals metabolic processes. After four doses, he underwent another PET scan.
“I was hoping that maybe it would show some slight decrease,” Young says. “It was like a miracle. It showed that there were no active cancer cells. We don‘t know what that means: Are they dead? Are they gone? Am I cured?”
Siva was impressed with the effect of the medication.
“The scans are negative. That‘s a great sign. There is no active cancer, but there could still be dormant cells.”
The oncologist says Young‘s follow-up will include periodic scans, and she‘s optimistic about his health.
“We know that when people have a complete response like he has, they may keep this response going for years.”
Young was able to go ahead with his wedding early this summer. He is resuming his law practice and has returned to his role as a councilman for the town of Clay.
This article appears in the summer 2018 issue of Cancer Care magazine.