New treatment offers hope for devastating diagnosis
PORTLAND (WGME) -- In October 2014, Lisa Eid went to her primary care physician for asthma and an unexplained pain in her leg. Hours later, she was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.
A local oncologist determined the cancer had spread quickly from her lung to her liver and lymph nodes. Chemotherapy seemed to be the only option, but the prognosis didn’t look good. Not one to admit defeat easily, Lisa’s husband, CBS 13 Sports Director Dave Eid, searched for a second opinion. The next day, the couple hopped on I-95 and drove two hours south to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
The Eids met with Dr. Geoffrey Oxnard, an oncologist specializing in treating patients with non-small cell lung cancer, which is one of the two main types of lung cancer and the most common. NSCLC affects both smokers and non-smokers, like Lisa.
"When we first saw Dr. Oxnard, I felt a sense of peace," said Lisa. "The first thing he said to me was, ‘don't act sick, don't lose weight, and don't be a superhero.’"
That role was reserved for Dr. Oxnard. He did genomic testing on Lisa and determined she had a rare ROS-1 gene mutation. About 1 percent of patients with NSCLC have ROS-1, according to the National Cancer Institute. Because of these different mutations, lung cancer is often difficult to treat.
Dr. Oxnard recommended Lisa try targeted therapy instead of chemo or radiation. As he explained, targeted therapy is effective against the right cells without causing side effects against the healthy ones.
“The patient can go about living their life with their cancer controlled, but feeling like they don't have cancer at all," said Oxnard.
He started Lisa on her first round of “smart pills.” She responded well at first, but then developed a resistance to the medicine and the main tumor in her lung started to show progression. Not all hope was lost, though.
"We have a line-up of drugs, increasingly more potent drugs, that patients can move to," said Dr. Oxnard. "We can create a treatment program that lasts for years."
With mild hesitation, Lisa enrolled in a clinical trial for an experimental drug designed specifically for her genetic mutation. The whole Eid family was on board, willing to try anything and everything.
"When something like this happens, it's real, it's game on," said Dave Eid. "To fight cancer, you have to be all in."
That sheer determination and hopefulness is exactly why another Maine woman diagnosed with lung cancer was in the exact same place at the same time. Betsy Cummings was at Dana Farber for treatment, when she came across an article about Lisa and Dave in the hospital’s newsletter.
"It was interesting to see someone else who has a family and someone else who was seeing the same doctor as I do," said Betsy Cummings. Both women are wives, mothers and Mainers who were given unfavorable diagnoses.
Two and a half years ago, Cummings had gone to the doctor for what she thought was just a sinus infection. After some scans, a Maine oncologist found a tumor in her brain connected to stage four lung cancer. By then, it had already spread to her spine, pelvis and lymph nodes.
"I was shocked when they came in the next day and they said it was in the lung. How can I go all the way to stage four?" said Cummings. "When they said the word 'cancer,' I couldn't say it for two weeks. It took me a little bit to realize what I was in for."
Cummings started with four rounds of chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiation. When that didn’t seem to help, she went to Dana Farber for a second opinion and was put on targeted therapy. While reading the hospital newsletter in the lobby, she learned Dave Eid worked at CBS 13 and contacted him about his wife. The two women bonded instantly over their similarities.
"It almost felt like she was a kindred spirit," said Lisa. "You want to connect with people who are just like you because you can bounce stuff off each other."
The two women met regularly at CIA Cafe in South Portland for tea and some much-needed support.
"If you're having a down day or side effects, you can check in with the other person," said Cummings.
Both women have seen success with targeted therapy. Doctors told Cummings that she has "no evidence of disease." Her back, pelvic and brain tumors are gone. The lung tumor shows only a little cloudiness in scans.
"I want to be around for the future and I've already made a couple goals. My daughter got married and my son graduated from college," said Cummings. "It's amazing to have the quality of life that we do given our diagnosis."
Lisa has also responded positively to targeted therapy. Her latest scans showed her tumor in the lung had shrunk dramatically and was stable. The cancerous spots on her liver and lymph nodes are gone. And as an added bonus, Lisa hasn’t experienced any drastic side effects from her pills.
"Lisa is doing great," said Dr. Oxnard. "This drug is so new, we don't know how long it's going to last and that's really exciting."
It can also be a little scary, both women agreed.
"As miraculous as the drug is, you just don't know when it's going to stop working,” said Lisa. “So you're cautious.”
Both women admitted they’re cautious, but optimistic. The two Mainers stressed the importance of looking on the bright side and finding joy in the little things.
"Each day you really appreciate," said Cummings. "It's going from, I'm potentially dying... to how do I live best with this disease?"
"I have cancer. That's my new life. Taking care of myself and making sure I'm good for my kids and for David," said Lisa. "If it wants to hang out in my body and sleep, that's okay."
While targeted therapy is still in its early stages, Dr. Oxnard expressed confidence that they’ve made a lot of headway in treating lung cancer. The hope from here, he said, is that this type of medicine will soon be used to successfully fight other cancers as well.