One Magic Pill and 24 Months Later

by: Michael McCarty, lung cancer survivor and advocate

Michael M

Michael in a meeting on the Hill, September 2014

It was a hot day in early August, 2012 and I was out running and ran into some friends on the road and decided to join them.   I knew for the last several months that my running pace was off and my workouts were less than to be desired but I kept thinking I was simply lacking motivation after running a half-marathon earlier in the summer.

As the four of us started off, I called on my body to push itself and set a healthy pace but my body had no answer and its silent stubbornness left me frustrated.  And after falling behind from the group, I stopped running and started walking.  My friends were kind and tried to reassure me that the heat was the cause.  However, I knew better.  And less than a week later, I felt a lymph node to start to pop out on the right side just above my clavicle.

After x-rays, CTs, several doctors’ visits (the doctors knowing I wasn’t a smoker and in good shape could only believe that I had some type of pulmonary infection) and a referral to a pulmonary specialist who couldn’t see me for another eight weeks, I was able to get a general surgeon to do a biopsy on the lymph node.

I will never forget the day he called me into his office to tell me I had lung cancer and it was advanced.  My wife and I left the doctor’s office and we sat down in the first chairs we saw and I then pointed to the survival rate I had written down on a piece of paper and I started to cry.  And for the next month, I was lost in a fog of anxiety, fear and anger as to why this was happening to me – a 43 year old runner, a lifelong non-smoker, a husband and a father of three.   Prayer seemed to be my only comfort.

I was originally diagnosed as Stage IIIB (adenocarcinoma of the lung which quickly became deemed Stage IV).  As to no surprise, I was deemed inoperable but was able to get into a trial at MD Anderson.  After 11 doses of chemo and 38 trips to the proton center, I received the glorious news that I was NED.  This lasted for about 11 months until I went into the hospital with double pneumonia.

There I discovered I had pleural effusion, pericardial effusion, nine (9) cm mass in the right upper lobe, nodules on the left lung, cancerous tumor on the spine, cancerous lesions in the eyes, many lymph nodes lighting up throughout my chest, and two lymph nodes pushing against my esophagus preventing me from eating.

Even though I made it home, I was in tremendous pain, on oxygen 24/7 and during a short month’s time I lost 40 pounds.   My local oncologist gave me months to live as the cancer was spreading and spreading quickly.  However, I was tested for the second time for the ALK mutation.  This time, I unequivocally tested positive for the ALK fusion.

I was placed on XALKORI (crizotinib) and within a week, my pain was gone, I was off oxygen, and felt well enough to get into the gym (although only for a very light workout).  Within weeks, my family and I were vacationing in the Keys giving God praise for what we call the “Magic Pill”.  My first PET scan showed no evidence of my disease and my last scan confirmed that I remain NED.

My doctors cautioned me that I am not in remission but merely suppression.  Call it what you wish, I have been given time, precious time, and during this time, now two years and counting, I want to help organizations like Lung Cancer Alliance to develop awareness about lung cancer and ensure that lung cancer receives equitable funding for research.  Through research more drugs, like crizotinib, can be developed and hopefully not just providing survivors like me suppression but real life sustaining remission.

So get involved and set yourself free by helping others fight and beat this horrible disease. We too can build an army of survivors.