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dave h: kidney cancer

What if you could go about your normal life while being treated for cancer?

“It’s like three little pin pricks just underneath the skin. That's about it.”

February 2009 was not a good month for David Healy. At age 44, David, a husband and father of three boys, was laid off from his job working as a car mechanic. While lugging his heavy tool box home for the last time, David noticed some pain in his lower back. The next day, he woke up with a debilitating backache. He went to an urgent care facility where doctors told him he likely had gallstones. Further tests ultimately yielded a much worse diagnosis: stage 4 metastatic kidney cancer.
Kidney cancer is a difficult cancer to treat. Often without symptoms in its early stages, it may not be diagnosed until after it has spread to other parts of the body. When detected in the advanced stages, it is often resistant to chemotherapy, radiation, and hormonal therapies. Targeted therapies, such as VEGF inhibitors, are often the first-line treatment, but better therapies are needed—particularly for patients like David, who are diagnosed when the disease has advanced.
At the recommendation of Arkadiusz Dudek, M.D., Ph.D., a medical oncologist then at the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center, David enrolled in a phase 2 clinical study evaluating an approved VEGF inhibitor called sunitinib (Sutent®), plus an experimental immunotherapy called AGS-003, developed by Argos Therapeutics. AGS-003 is a personalized cancer immunotherapy designed to help the body’s immune system recognize and fight cancer cells. In order to make AGS-003, dendritic cells are obtained from a patient’s own white blood cells. The dendritic cells are then loaded with tumor antigens from the patient’s own tumor. Once the dendritic cells have been “educated” with these antigens to recognize a patient’s tumor, they are injected back into the patient on a regular basis, where they will then stimulate T cells to fight the remaining cancer.  
TheAnswertoCancer (TheA2C) spoke to David about his experience being treated with this new form of immunotherapy, and how his life has changed as a result of having cancer.

TheA2C: When you initially complained of pain in your back, doctors thought you had gallstones. What did they suggest you do at that point?
David: They thought we had better get a scan done and check to see how many I had. At that point, I was still at the urgent care facility. I went home and grabbed my wife because I couldn't drive anymore, it was hurting so bad. Then we went up to the hospital and had the scan done. While we waited in the waiting room, the phone rang. I didn't answer. My wife did, and that's when they told us: I have cancer in my kidney. It was a complete shock to both of us. I mean, even though I was hurting so bad, I thought I would have to pick my wife off of the ground.
TheA2C: An oncologist eventually treated you. What treatments did you have?
David: Well, they took the kidney out. That was the main concern because I guess the tumor was pretty huge. Then they referred me to Dr. Dudek, who told me about the research study.
TheA2C: What was the purpose of the experimental treatment that you received?
David: They told me that between the immunotherapy and the Sutent, the lesions I still had should shrink. I had a couple of lesions on my lungs and liver, and most of them are almost all gone now. The one on the liver is totally gone.
TheA2C: That must have been pretty good news to hear.
David: Oh, yes. Over the years that I've been on this program, everything's been looking up.
TheA2C: Will you continue to be on the immunotherapy indefinitely?
David: At this time, yes. There's been no change in the plans at all. They see me every three months. They have been totally amazed at how well I have responded to this.
TheA2C: What was it like getting the immunotherapy injections?
David: Every three months, I'd go in for my shots. They give it right underneath the armpits and it's like three little pin pricks just underneath the skin. That's about it. Then they monitor me for a while to make sure I don't have any reactions to the drugs or anything. It usually takes about an hour.
TheA2C: Do you have any side effects from the treatment?
David: A few side effects but they’re easy to deal with. I have some soreness in the mouth and on the feet but it's tolerable.
TheA2C: And if it's keeping the cancer at bay…
David: Then, I'll stick with it, yes. I'll deal with the pain.
TheA2C: How would you say that this whole experience has changed your life and your perspective on things?
David: Being diagnosed with cancer, that was a big shock and it changed our whole family around. But knowing this treatment is helping me along and is more or less curing me, I think we’re doing quite well, considering.
TheA2C: Are you back to doing your normal everyday things again?
David: Yes, I'm pretty much doing stuff I usually do. I'm just happy to be around and to be able to watch my kids grow up now, and being there for them to graduate high school.
TheA2C: What would you say to another patient who is thinking about going through this sort of treatment?
David: My advice would be: do it. I mean, what I have experienced in being able to see the cancer going away, I would highly recommend this procedure being done.
TheA2C: How do you feel being a part of a research study?
David: I'm very excited about helping other people get on this program, I would do anything and everything to help people. That's always been my motto: help people. When I see an opportunity, I'll definitely do it.
TheA2C: What is the status of your cancer now? Are you considered to be in remission?
David: No, I'm not in complete remission. I've still got a few remaining spots that they're monitoring. They haven't grown, but they haven't shrunk either, so they can't really consider me in complete remission.
TheA2C: But if they're not growing and you can live your life normally, that's a good enough result?
David: Yeah, that's a good enough result for me.

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