Jerry Williams has no big plans for his future. And he likes it that way. He’s already accomplished more than most people will in two lifetimes. Now, after 66 years, Jerry prefers to sit back, enjoy his family, and take time to read the newspaper.
Jerry, father of four, grandfather of 12, and great-grandfather of eight, served stateside in the United States Marine Corps and then enlisted in the Navy. In four years he traveled around the world three times on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger. During his time in the Navy, Jerry met his beautiful wife, Veronica, and they are celebrating forty years of marriage this year. After leaving the Navy, Jerry worked for the Department of Defense for nearly 31 years before retiring in 2010. It was a few years into retirement when Jerry’s health suddenly started declining
Something isn’t right
Jerry had been active all of his life. In high school he played basketball, football, and ran track and was accepted to the University of Colorado on a football scholarship. So, in May of 2015 when he could not shake a persistent, dry cough and lost nearly forty pounds in four months, Jerry knew something was not right.
“It would not go away, no matter what I did,” he says. “The doctor prescribed me some cough syrup but it didn’t do anything so a few weeks later I went in for an x-ray.”
The x-ray showed something no one wants to see: three large tumors located in his left lung. A biopsy revealed that he had small cell lung cancer. Later, additional scans showed that the cancer had spread to the lining of his right lung, making it inoperable.
“It was a big shock. A life-changing shock. No one ever expects to hear they have stage four lung cancer,” Jerry says. “But I did not have time to feel bad for myself. I had to get to work on beating it.”
Jerry and his primary care doctor started creating a treatment plan for him. Although he tried to remain positive, Jerry was very aware of his situation.
“I like to hear the bad news before the good and my doctor was very honest with me,” he says. “I was prepared for the worst, I gave my wife all of the passwords and showed her how to pay our bills online. I wanted to make sure she was ready. It was pretty traumatic.”
Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) makes up ten to 15 percent of all lung cancers. Even among other types of lung cancer, SCLC is infamous for its rapid growth and aggressive spread. At the time of diagnosis SCLC has often metastasized to other sites in the body and is typically treated with chemotherapy as the first line of defense. Standard treatments almost certainly will not cure stage IV SCLC and national survival rates are short.
“Unfortunately small cell lung cancer is a very aggressive form of lung cancer and the standard of care has not been changed for nearly thirty years,” explains Ross Camidge, MD, PhD, University of Colorado Cancer Center Investigator and director of thoracic oncology. “We are working to change that.”
Standard is not enough.
In June of 2015 Jerry started chemotherapy and initially responded well to it. His tumors shrank by nearly 75 percent. However his cancer began to grow again in February of 2016.
“After chemotherapy stopped working my doctor recommended I consider going on a clinical trial,” explains Jerry. “He used to work for the Cancer Center and was very familiar with all of the different studies here. He thought I would make a great candidate.”
Jerry made an appointment with Dr. Camidge to see if he was a good fit for a cutting-edge trial being offered at the University.
“I felt like participating in the trial was my best option because, quite frankly, I was out of options,” says Jerry. “The chemo stopped working, the cancer had come back and there was nothing else anyone could do at that point. I never once hesitated or had a second thought about being a part of the study.”
With a fighter’s mentality Jerry started the clinical trial in April of 2016.
A ground-breaking trial
Jerry was put on a combination of two new drugs, ipilumumab and nivolumab, in hopes that they would boost his immune system and help his body fight off the cancer.
Ipilumumab, commonly known as Yervoy, works to activate the immune system and help Cytotoxic T lymphocytes (T-cells) kill cancer cells. Think about it this way: the T-cells have the ability to destroy cancer cells but their growth is somehow blocked. Yervoy turns off the mechanism that damps down the T-cells and boosts their numbers. Yervoy is commonly used to treat melanoma but, on its own, has had little effect against lung cancers.
That’s where the second drug comes in. Nivolumab is a “checkpoint inhibitor”, also commonly used against melanoma, that works to block another strategy that cancer uses to escape T-cells. The combination of the two drugs seems to be the key for small cell lung cancer, not just boosting the numbers of T-cells but also making sure they are able to follow through and attack the lung cancer.
During his first treatment on the drug combination therapy Jerry recalls looking at the patients around him and feeling incredibly blessed.
“I remember telling myself ‘you could have it so much worse, Jerry’,” he says. “’There are thousands of people going through this every day, be thankful that I am even a candidate for the trial’.”
Jerry did have some negative side-effects from the drugs but he never once thought about stopping the trial.
“After my first treatment I felt like I could not stand up, my eyes were extremely itchy, and my skin started flaking off,” he explains. “But by the second
nd third time they were gone and I felt pretty much back to normal.”
The response in the tumor on his scans has been dramatic. At the appointment before the interview for this article, Jerry learned that his tumors had shrunken to nearly microscopic size.
“This treatment, which is looking to be one of the first real breakthroughs in this type of lung cancer for many decades, is now showing these sorts of responses in about 20 to 30 percent of people, with side effects, when they occur, mostly coming from the person’s own immune system attacking some of the good parts of their body as well,” says Camidge.
At the point of this interview, Jerry had been on the trial for exactly 25 weeks and he will continue to be on it as long as the combination controls his tumors.
“Unless the cancer progresses or the side effects start outweighing the benefits there is no reason for him to stop,” explains Camidge.
“Last year I felt like I was on death row,” says Jerry. “Now I am able to get up and run around with my great-grandkids. People don’t believe me when I tell them I have cancer because I have put my weight back on. It is incredible.”
Despite the fact that Jerry is going through treatment for stage IV small cell lung cancer, he is not as concerned with his well-being as he is with the well-being of the people around him.
“Going through cancer and cancer treatment is tough on me, but I feel like it is even harder on my friends and family,” he says. “I know that them having to watch me go through this is very upsetting, especially for the little ones.”
Luckily for Jerry he never once had to worry about a lack of support. As the third oldest of 12 siblings, he always had someone to take care of him, drive him to treatments, and go to all of his appointments.
“We are a family of preachers and nurses,” Jerry says. “We believe in the power of prayer in combination with science. I feel like I a
m living proof of that.”
Although many people going through a cancer diagnosis often plan a “bucket list” of sorts, Jerry sees things differently. He has no desire to travel the world, go skydiving, or climb a famous mountain.
“I have lived my life exactly how I wanted to,” he says. “If I were to die tomorrow I would have no regrets. I am focusing on my time with the people I love.”
Jerry also sees the bigger picture when it comes to the importance of participating in a clinical trial. Unfortunately people of color are underrepresented in clinical trials, making it harder to discover which treatments work best in these populations. Jerry wants to help change that.
“When I started the study I always said it would be great if it helped me but it would be better to help other people,” he says. “If something they learned from me could help another person that is all I could ask for. The fact that I am still here today is just an added bonus.”