On My Way to Hospice Care, Immunotherapy Saved My Life

A phase I clinical study of combination immunotherapy pulled me from the brink of death, but I don’t consider myself cured.

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“There are no guarantees my remission will last, so I would never say I’m cured of my disease. I … am grateful for the bonus time experimental therapies have given me.”
— David Kensler

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Two years ago, I was on my way to hospice care after numerous treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy failed to stop the progression of my stage IV castration-resistant prostate cancer. A last-minute call from my oncologist about a phase I trial of combination immunotherapy led to treatment that literally saved my life.

Initially diagnosed in 2011 with prostate cancer after a routine blood test showed my prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level had skyrocketed from 3 ng/mL just the year before to 29.5 ng/mL, I had spent most of the past 5 years trying to contain and manage the cancer. I had a prostatectomy soon after my diagnosis, which only gave me a brief—just 2 months—respite before the cancer started to advance. This was followed by rounds of the combination regimen abiraterone acetate (Zytiga) and prednisone, which was effective for about 14 months. I was later prescribed another chemotherapy, docetaxel, but the side effects were so daunting, I had to stop taking the drug. And although localized radiation therapy was effective in obliterating tumors in my gastrointestinal tract that were causing bowel obstruction, the tumors eventually grew back, causing pain and the potential need for a colostomy, which I resisted.

By the fall of 2015, I had run out of treatment options. My oncologist prescribed pain medication, told me goodbye, and said I should get my affairs in order. I quickly made arrangements to ensure my family’s financial future was secure and placed a call to hospice care. I wasn’t sad I was going to die, but I was mad as hell it was cancer that was killing me.

Then my oncologist called to tell me about a phase I clinical trial of combination immunotherapy for which I could be eligible to participate.

Another Chance at Life

My response to the combination immunotherapy regimen was immediate and dramatic. Just 3 weeks after starting the trial, my tumors started shrinking. On December 23, 2016, I was declared cancer-free and have remained cancer-free ever since. I’m thrilled to be given another chance at life. I have a lot to look forward to, including being a part of the lives of my 3-year-old twin grandchildren and watching them grow. The joy they bring me is immeasurable. But I know metastatic cancer is wily, and there are no guarantees my remission will last, so I would never say I’m cured of my disease. I expected to die 4 years ago and am grateful for the bonus time experimental therapies have given me to spend with family and friends, but I have no illusions about the seriousness of my cancer. Having escaped death once, I’m prepared for whatever the future holds.

I’ve had a good life. I would even say I’ve had a charmed life. I just didn’t know I could be this fortunate. ■

Mr. Kensler, a former airshow pilot, lives in Fort Myers, Florida.