Patients like Carol Pitman are living longer, more fulfilling lives thanks to advances in cancer therapies, such as immunotherapy and precision medicine.
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 right away,” Pitman recalled.
Following a physical exam, chest X-ray, and CT scan (another type of medical imaging), Pitman received some shocking news: She had lung cancer.
Because she’d had no symptoms until developing a cough, Pitman was even more surprised to learn that her cancer was already at stage 4, meaning it had spread, or metastasized, from one lung to the other and to the surrounding lymph nodes. Lung cancer frequently goes undetected until it’s at an advanced stage because symptoms don’t appear before then or are mistaken for other health problems.
While stage 4 lung cancer can’t be cured, Pitman’s oncologist Tanvir Sattar, MD, reassured her that advances in a type of treatment called immunotherapy could extend her life. Immunotherapy stimulates the body’s own immune system to slow or stop the growth of cancer cells.
“Since we started adding immunotherapy to systemic chemotherapy,” said Dr. Sattar, “we have prolonged our patients’ median survival time from about 9 to 12 months to about 18 months, and we’ve also been able to improve their quality of life.”
Thirty months after her diagnosis, Pitman is doing remarkably well. She receives a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy infusions every 3 weeks, and her cancer is stable and under control.
“You’d never know by looking at me that I have cancer,” said Pitman. “It’s really remarkable.”
If Pitman’s lung cancer starts progressing again, Dr. Sattar and his team are prepared with another line of defense: personalized medicine. Also known as precision medicine, personalized medicine helps doctors tailor disease prevention and treatment based on each patient’s specific combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.
Precision medicine is an exciting development in cancer care because it can help doctors identify with much greater certainty the treatments that are most likely to be effective for each patient while avoiding treatments that aren’t likely to help.
“We sent her tumor for next-generation sequencing,” Dr. Sattar explained, “which means we’re looking at different genetic markers on the tumor. We have specific medicines for different mutations that drive tumor growth, so we can block the mutation to stop the growth and sometimes even shrink the tumor.”
Going through cancer treatment made Pitman especially vulnerable to COVID-19, so she spent lots of time at home alone during the pandemic. She kept her mind active by reading and doing The New York Times crossword puzzle every day. She is a member of multiple historical societies and, after participating virtually for nearly 2 years, is looking forward to attending meetings in person again very soon.
“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.