May 21, 2024

Surviving stage 4 lung cancer with immunotherapy treatment

Patients like Carol Pitman are living longer thanks to advances in lung cancer therapies. Learn how Kaiser Permanente uses immunotherapy to treat cancer.

With her cancer stable and under control, Pitman can focus on the activities she loves most — from preserving historic landmarks to doing the daily crossword.

Vibrant and active at age 77, Carol Pitman came down with a cold after gathering with her friends to watch a football game in 2019.

“I was still coughing a week later, so I went in to see my doctor,” Pitman recalled.

Pitman wasn’t at all prepared for her diagnosis. Following a physical exam, chest X-ray, and CT scan (a type of medical imaging), she received some shocking news.

She had lung cancer.

Immunotherapy advances cancer treatment

Pitman had no symptoms other than her cough. So she was even more surprised to learn that she had stage 4 lung cancer. The cancer had spread from one lung to the other and to the surrounding lymph nodes.

Pitman’s case wasn’t unusual. Lung cancer frequently goes undetected until it’s at an advanced stage because symptoms don’t appear before then. Or if there are symptoms, they’re often similar to other health problems.

Stage 4 lung cancer can’t be cured. But Pitman’s oncologist, Tanvir Sattar, MD, reassured her that advances in treatment could extend her life expectancy.

For example, new kinds of immunotherapy can stimulate the body’s own immune system to slow or stop the growth of cancer cells.

“Since we started adding immunotherapy to chemotherapy,” said Dr. Sattar, “our patients’ median survival time has gone from 9 to 12 months to about 18 months. We’ve also been able to improve their quality of life during that time.”

Since Pitman’s diagnosis, a combination of therapies has kept her cancer stable and under control.

“You’d never know by looking at me that I have cancer,” said Pitman. “It’s really remarkable.”

Surviving stage 4 lung cancer: ‘We are going to work at this together’

Going through cancer treatment made Pitman especially vulnerable to COVID-19. So she spent lots of time at home during the pandemic.

She’s a member of multiple historical societies. She participated virtually to stay in touch. She also keeps her mind active by reading and doing The New York Times crossword puzzle every day.

“Dr. Sattar and my entire care team have been simply wonderful,” Pitman said.

“When he first told me I have cancer, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘We are going to work at this together.’ And boy, have we!”

Learn more about cancer care at Kaiser Permanente.