As A.C. Thomas successfully navigated his up-and-down journey through lung cancer treatment, two invaluable allies led the way: his consistently upbeat attitude and personalized treatment from a team of doctors at the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Clinical Cancer Center at Froedtert Hospital.
“You can’t feel sorry for yourself,” said A.C., 67, a retired school maintenance worker. “That’s the worst thing you can do. You have to get the best help you can get, and then help the doctors to help you. It’s as simple as that.”
The Milwaukee resident’s journey began in 2010 when what he figured was a case of pneumonia turned into a chilling diagnosis: stage III lung cancer in his left lung. According to radiation oncologist Elizabeth Gore, MD, surgery was not an option due to lymph node involvement and the extent of the disease.
A team of doctors, including cardiothoracic surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, pathologists and radiologists, decided that simultaneous chemotherapy and radiation therapy was the treatment plan that would provide A.C. with the most effective care. Moreover, A.C. was invited to participate in a nationwide clinical trial testing the effectiveness of more radiation treatments than usual.
“I felt like I had a lot to gain,” A.C. said, explaining why he agreed to volunteer."
A.C. was somewhat unique in that he always was willing to take that extra step, which is an important attribute,” said Smitha Menon, MD, medical oncologist. “He doesn’t get stressed out, which is very helpful.”
A.C. received standard doses of radiation therapy during each treatment session, but received 37 treatments instead of the typical 30, Dr. Gore said. Then, he had two additional standard cycles of chemotherapy that ended in October 2010. “He did very well, with complete local control of the cancer and no evidence of the cancer’s spreading,” she said.
In a perfect world, A.C.’s story would conclude there. And it appeared it would, after several years of clear follow-up scans — a good sign, considering that less than 50 percent of stage III lung cancer patients survive more than two years, Dr. Gore said. But early in 2013, a routine surveillance scan revealed a new tumor, this time in his right lung.
Fortunately, the tumor was small, measuring less than a centimeter, and it hadn’t spread to any lymph nodes. This made surgery a viable option, with no need for radiation therapy or chemotherapy. “Surgery is the best treatment for lung cancer that hasn’t spread,” said George Haasler, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon who specializes in lung disease. “But the benefit to the patient becomes less clear the bigger the surgery becomes, so we carefully tailor surgeries to each patient’s starting condition.”
A.C. hasn’t experienced a recurrence of his cancer. “I feel great, except that I run out of gas pretty easily,” he said, referring to his energy level. His case stands as a textbook example of the Froedtert & MCW Cancer Network’s multidisciplinary approach, his doctors said.
“Patients get a whole team of doctors who manage their treatment,” Dr. Gore said. “They are all dedicated experts in their fields and attentive to the nuances of individualized needs. I focus only on lung cancer, so I have a much deeper understanding of the disease than if I tried to focus on multiple types of cancer.”
“I cherish my doctors,” A.C. said. “I received very personalized care. I would recommend Froedtert to anyone with cancer. I just told a friend of mine who was diagnosed with cancer that he should be at Froedtert.”