It was December of 2011 and the story of how a Veteran overcame Stage 4 lung cancer began when Dennis O’Brien received a shocking and devastating diagnosis: non-small cell lung cancer, Stage 4. At the time, such a diagnosis left little room for any expectations of surviving beyond a year or so. Dennis’s diagnosis was so dire that his first thought was, “I’m dead.” And, because the discovery of his disease came well before the discovery of mutations, immunotherapy, and other developments in lung cancer treatment, his initial thinking was not so far off the mark.

A Disabled Veteran’s Fight to Beat Stage 4 Cancer

In early October 2011, Dennis who was then a 64-year-old disabled Veteran (he served in the Panama Canal for 18 months in the late 60’s) was on vacation in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife. He developed an annoying cough which, throughout his visit, got increasingly worse. His wife and a friend they were visiting told him he needed to see a doctor. They knew it was something more than just allergies or a cold. Like many people, he put off calling for an appointment but finally did so right around Thanksgiving. He was seen a week or so later.

By this time, Dennis, too, was concerned about his cough. By the time his appointment came along, his anxiety was piqued. He requested to be seen by a specialist. It was the first week of December and he was unable to secure an appointment until April 2012. Dennis had no confidence that he would be alive long enough to go. Thankfully, the nurse gave him excellent advice: “Go to the emergency room…they will have to examine you.”

Fortunately for Dennis, the medical team in the emergency room called in a pulmonologist who performed a bronchoscopy. Just an hour later, Dennis got the news: his right lung, right bronchial tube, and five lymph nodes were “covered in cancer.”

Changing the Cocktail Every 4 to 6 Months

During that hospital visit, an oncologist was called in to discuss his findings and the available treatments. As a reminder, in 2011, the options were much more limited than today. At that time, which was not that long ago, chemotherapy was pretty much the only option. Thanks to aggressive and ongoing research, patients today are often afforded other treatment options including oral medication and immunotherapy.

Dennis’ oncologist told him, “Chemotherapy will do wonders if your body accepts it, but because of resistance, we are looking at changing the cocktail every four to six months.”

The Road to Recovery: A Veteran Overcame Stage 4 Lung Cancer

Following chemotherapy treatment from January 2012 through May 2012, Dennis was NED (no evidence of disease) in his bronchial tubes and showed a 50% reduction of disease in his right lung.

Dennis is a true family man. Married with two grown daughters, he is perhaps most proud of his eight grandchildren. At the time of his diagnosis, he had been fortunate enough to see two of them graduate from high school…but he wanted to be around to see the other six graduate as well. Knowing that the youngest of the grandchildren had eleven more years of school before hitting that milestone, Dennis looked at the doctor and said,

“Let’s go upstairs and start some chemo!”

In the time since his diagnosis and today, Dennis’s body did indeed become resistant to treatment. For his treatment, he has six different chemotherapy cocktails – five intravenously and one oral. In 2014 his doctor gave him heartbreaking news:

“I am afraid there is nothing more we can do. We have exhausted all our protocols and our only hope is a clinical trial.”

Defying Expectations: How a Veteran Overcame Stage 4 Lung Cancer

As Dennis reports, it is very difficult for Veterans to be accepted for clinical trials, and their medical team must aggressively campaign for their patients to be included. Because of this, it was an amazing day when Dennis visited his doctor who, upon entering the room announced:

“Good morning Patient #751. You are in the clinical trial!”

Dennis, a resilient Veteran, overcame stage 4 lung cancer against all odds. Known as Patient #751, he endured 26 bi-weekly intravenous treatments, each session lasting anywhere from two to four hours. A year into this rigorous regimen, he was randomly chosen for an experimental phase to cease all treatments, testing whether his immune system could maintain its defense. Remarkably, Dennis’s body triumphed in this critical test, and he achieved the status of NED (no evidence of disease), marking a significant milestone in his courageous battle with lung cancer.

But the news got even better at an appointment with his oncologist in 2021:

“I don’t have good news. I have great news. You are not only cancer-free…you are cured!”

This past June, Dennis proudly watched his youngest grandchild graduate from high school.

Veteran Overcame Stage 4 Lung Cancer and Becomes Advocate

As one of the newest members of our Voices of Hope: LCFA Speaker’s Bureau, Dennis is thrilled to be able to share his story with other lung cancer patients and their families.

“My journey has been amazing. I found myself in the mindset of wondering why I am still here when so many others have not been as fortunate. I know it is to allow me the privilege of helping others. I have shared my story at 15 different churches and am confident that God kept me here to continue to share my story and provide hope for people with this diagnosis. In my mind, the cancer in front of you is never as big as the God behind you.“

I’m using my lungs to advocate

As a member of LCFA’s Speakers Bureau, I’m advocating for research and raising awareness through the media, embodying hope and action.

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