Dr. Michael Weitz was an emergency room physician busy with his career and raising his family when his life was interrupted by the frightening diagnosis of lung cancer. Here, in his own words, is his story of HOPE.
I am blessed. I have an incredible wife and 3 wonderful boys. I’m a doctor and practice emergency medicine. But in the blink of an eye, our world was turned upside down when I was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.
I was 49 years old and basically given 4-8 months to live. We cried together, hugged each other and decided we would live life day by day and for our children’s sake, maintain as much normalcy as possible. We began our journey. I underwent chemotherapy, radiation, and removal of my left lung. Sometime after that, the cancer had spread to my bones and my brain which meant more radiation and chemotherapy.
This journey has taught me many things that I never learned as a doctor. I never knew that lung cancer was the #1 cancer killer. Taking more lives than breast, colon, prostate, and pancreatic cancer combined. In the US alone, 220,000 people will be diagnosed and 160,000 will die of lung cancer – this year. 60% of new diagnosis will be in never smokers or former smokers many of whom stopped smoking 20, 30, or 40 years before. Lung cancer will kill twice the number of women who die from breast cancer. We’ve made great strides in increasing survival for breast, colon, and prostate cancer but survival rates for lung cancer have remained pretty much unchanged since President Nixon declared a war on cancer 40 years ago. Only about 17% of all lung cancer patients will survive 5 years.
The 3 branches of government that fund cancer research are the Department of Defense, the National Institute of Health and the Center for Disease Control. The DOD decreased the 2010 funding for lung cancer by 25%. The NIH has decreased the lung cancer budget by 40% in the past 5 years and most staggering is that the CDC does not provide funding for lung cancer research despite funding breast, prostate, and colon cancer to the tune of over 250 million dollars each year. I’m not begrudging the money spent for other cancers but it is time for lung cancer to get some respect. Where are the marches, where are the ribbons, where are the spokespeople, where is the outrage.. They are in hiding. Hiding because of the stigma that smoking brings to lung cancer.
This is why we were compelled to become lung cancer advocates. We helped launch Lung Cancer Foundation of America where I now sit on the scientific advisory board with leading lung cancer researchers in the United States and Canada.
LCFA’s mission is to save lives by dramatically increasing the 5 yr survival rates for all stages of lung cancer by providing the necessary and critical funding for creative and leading edge lung cancer research programs. So now I have become an advocate and speak out on behalf of all of those lung cancer survivors and victims who never had a chance to speak.
Despite this, I see plenty of reason to be hopeful. We are on the precipice of amazing progress especially with targeted therapies and personalized medicine. These are treatments that kill only cancer cells and not your normal cells as well. I’ve been fortunate to have participated in 3 clinical trials all of which have been successful. After learning that I have the ALK mutation, I was started on a targeted therapy Crizotinib (Xalkori). I had no measurable disease for the next 4 1/2 years. Unfortunately, Xalkori doesn’t pass the blood brain barrier very well and I had renewed cancer activity in my brain. This prompted a switch to another ALK inhibitor Alectinib (my 3rd clinical trial drug), which has resulted in dramatic improvement in my brain (Alectinib successfully crosses the blood brain barrier) with no measurable disease throughout my body. At present, I am an 8+ year survivor, treasuring each and every day with my wife, 3 boys, and a man’s best friend.
Everyone with lung cancer needs to have their cancer tissue tested for genetic mutations. ALL STAGES. If you don’t have tissue to test then get a biopsy. That biopsy may lead to identifying mutations that can be successfully targeted. All therapies, whether conventional or targeted, provide bridges to keep you alive for the next therapy, to get to the next bridge. My ultimate goal is not necessarily to cure the disease, but to successfully manage the disease. Very much like the way HIV/AIDS and diabetic patients manage their disease for many, many years….to convert a death sentence to a chronic illness.