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philip p: kidney cancer

How has immunotherapy changed your life?

I feel like I can see past tomorrow.

In 2012, life-long Tennessean Philip Prichard was shocked to learn that he had a 3.8 pound tumor on his right kidney. The tumor was removed successfully with surgery, but unfortunately, several months later, the cancer returned. Not satisfied with the chemotherapy options presented to them, Philip and his wife Susan sought out other options. Their research led them to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and a clinical trial for the immunotherapy nivolumab (Opdivo®).

It was in spring of 2012 that I realized I wasn’t feeling well. I was doing a lot of traveling for work and feeling very fatigued. One week, I came home after having just driven 18 hours from Charlotte, and crashed. My wife, Susan, woke me up the next day and said we were going to the doctor.

We went on Monday morning, and he did a lot of feeling around on me. He started pushing on my abdomen around my lower right rib, and said “Well, that's not supposed to be there.” And sure enough there was a hard spot right under my rib. They put me in the hospital on Friday, cut me open, and removed a 3.8 pound tumor.

The day of my surgery was also our second wedding anniversary. Susan and I were like “Happy anniversary! Yay!” About 40 some odd staples later, I got out of the hospital. I went home on Monday, and it was a lot of bed rest. I wasn't working. I stayed in bed off and on for about a month.

After that, everything was rolling along fine. In September, I started working a bit again. My doctor put me on a drug called Votrient to clear some spots in the pleura of my lung. And they cleared up 100 percent. They were very pleased with it. Everything was looking good—the Votrient turned my hair white, but Susan said I looked like an aging rock star, so I figured I could accept that.

But December of 2012 we'd gone to a Christmas Eve party downtown, and I remember it was bitter cold. When we were leaving the party, all of a sudden I couldn't catch my breath, I couldn't breathe. We called the doctor the next week, and got another scan. And I had a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in my lung. They put me into the hospital on New Years Eve. They got me on blood thinners, and during all that they found another tumor that was on my adrenal gland, wrapped around my vena cava. So they opened me up again in February, and I remember the doctor coming in after the surgery and he just had this look of disappointment.

            I knew something was wrong, and sure enough he said, "We'll talk later." They said there is nothing we can really do for you. We can put you on chemotherapy. I was going to go down the traditional chemo road, and my wife was on the phone constantly. I could hear her when I was lying in the bed just on the phone talking to people trying to figure out what to do, where to take me. She got in touch with MD Anderson in Houston. And so we traveled down  there in March. I was still really sore from the second surgery and the staples.

            We met with a surgeon, and he said, "Mr. Prichard, don't let anybody else open you up again. There is really no way that we can remove the tumor the way it's positioned." He said it had spread like molasses.

            But he set me up with an oncologist, Dr. Tannir, and his team. Dr. Tannir came in, and he said, "We've got some hope for you. There’s a new drug—it doesn't have a name, it's a number. We'd like to get you on it. It's a 50/50 shot whether you get on it. You'll either get on the new drug or the standard of care." The drug turned out to be the immunotherapy Opdivo.

            Dr. Tannir said basically it was giving my immune system a key to attack the tumor. He said it would be my immune system fighting the cancer. It seemed almost too good to be true.

            Fortunately I got on the experimental arm of the trial, and I went down for my first treatment in March, and then continued traveling to Houston every other Tuesday. By the third month, the tumor had shrunk by about 30 percent. And every scan after showed the cancer had reduced significantly. And I was getting stronger day by day.

            My doctor hasn't said that I'm cancer free, but Ive been off Opdivo since the trial ended in March. He says what he believes to be is scar tissue on my liver. I've gone down every Tuesday for the last three years, it's a little unnerving, a little scary, to be off the drug.

            But I've wanted to give my body a break, and see what would happen if I came off it. Susan can tell you, Id get a little irritated when I knew I had to get up at four o'clock in the morning to catch a plane to Houston and get poked and prodded, and evaluated and everything. After three years, it gets a little taxing. I'm happy that I don't have to travel, but I'm a little nervous that I'm off the drug at present. But I can get back on it if I need to.

            I'm alive and kicking today because of Opdivo, and it's definitely given me hope for the future. When I was first diagnosed, I wasn't sure how much longer I was going to be on this Earth. Fast-forwarding to today, I have hope for the future. I feel like I can see past tomorrow, whereas in the beginning it was just about getting through that day. Now I can see to the future, and live life like I used to. 

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