KANSAS CITY, MO – When most of us hear the word cancer, chemotherapy may come to mind. But have you ever heard of immunotherapy? The new chemo alternative is adding years to patient’s lives.
One Kansas City man credits an innovative doctor at St. Luke’s Health System, and a night in front of the TV for saving his life. Willie Woods, 72, and his oncologist at St. Lukes, Dr. Addison Tolentino, met two years ago. Upon meeting they had some tough choices to make.
“We were choosing to find new treatments or hospice,” Tolentino said.
But they weren’t always in this cancer fight together. Woods was first diagnosed with liver cancer at another hospital five years ago. But after a three-year battle there, his doctors told him it was just too much.
“I had yellow jaundice, and I got real weak,” Woods explained. They gave him 30 days. “I went first to a prayer,” he said.
He accepted his fate and prepared to die. But he’d soon find a second shot at life. In his final days, he went to St. Luke’s for a separate issue.
Woods had gallstones.
While at the hospital, Tolentino looked at his charts, saw his cancer, and saw something other doctors didn’t.
“There’s an explosion of new medicines,” Tolentino told KCTV5.
He told Woods he wanted to get creative and fight.
“I think we should take away the stigma that cancer equals dying. It’s not true anymore,” Tolentino said.
That new hope invigorated willie so much he found himself getting creative, too, at a rather unexpected time.
“I was looking at a TV and they kept talking about Opdivo, and this was a new drug, but it was not made for liver. It was made for lungs. My position was hey I’m going on 72. Why not take the chance? It’s all in the same area…it might work … so I wanted to try it,” Woods said.
When Woods asked Tolentino about the possibility his answer was simple.
“Let’s go for it,” he told Woods.
Opdivo is a type of immunotherapy. Unlike chemotherapy, it works by improving the body’s immune system.
Cancer cells hide behind molecules that protect the body from fighting them off. Doctors call those molecules gates or check points. Immunotherapy boosts a person’s immune system to the point where it removes those checkpoints and defeats the cancer cells.
Since Woods started immunotherapy in 2017, scans show the tumor in his liver has drastically shrunk. Today, his cancer is officially under control.
“It gave me a second chance on life,” Woods told KCTV5.
While we don’t always have control over the cards we’re dealt, Woods’ story is proof that in today’s age it’s always worth a fight.
“Your story is worth telling because you were planning for something different two years ago,” Tolentino said.
Woods said he’s gained a lot in the past five years since his diagnosis.
“Faith, trust in the hospital, trust in medicine, and that there’s good people in the world,” he said.
Only 18% of people survive Woods’ type of liver cancer five years after a diagnosis. Doctors say this shows immunotherapy could be the key to turning that around.
Since Woods started the drug, it’s been approved not just for liver but several other cancers as well.