On a cool Las Vegas Christmas Eve night, Arlie Daniel Jr. expects his house to be packed with the warmth of loved ones celebrating togetherness once more.
Like for many, Christmas is special to the 59-year-old who, with his girlfriend, Yvette Murphy, 52, will host a potluck with some 80 children, grandchildren, siblings and other family Monday evening.
But for the seventh year, the holiday means a little something extra to Daniel, who will swallow down a chemotherapy pill to keep his renal carcinoma at bay before joining his family’s festivities.
Like Daniel, Karen Kaufman, 59 and living in Las Vegas, has lived with cancer for more than six years.
Neither lets it bring their spirits down in celebratory times or otherwise.
“I try to enjoy each day not like it’s the last one, but knowing that it could be,” Daniel said.
When Dr. Rupesh Parikh, a medical oncologist and practice president at Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Southern Nevada, began practicing in 2002, cancer was, more often than not, a death sentence.
“I used to give terminal diagnoses and death sentences to some patients,” he said. “Now, I just tell them I don’t know.”
That’s because with the advancement of cancer treatment — like the invention of targeted therapies and immunotherapy, a promising biological treatment in which one’s own immune system is used to combat cancer cells — people are living longer lives with a diagnosis, he said.
“It’s essentially changing the curve of long-term cancer care,” Parikh said.
And the conversation changes. Patients who once only planned day to day think of their lives as long-lasting journeys again, making plans and taking trips.
“It’s probably the biggest change I’ve seen,” Parikh said. “Quality of life is improved.”
A saving grace
Kaufman learned she had triple negative breast cancer in June of 2012. By the next spring, it had metastasized.
“I knew I was in trouble,” she said, though she never considered dying. Instead, Kaufman sought answers from specialists around the country, meanwhile waiting to be accepted into a cancer drug trial.
She secured a spot to test an immunotherapy drug called Tecentriq. A doctor in San Francisco reviewed her file and advised her not to pass on the opportunity.
She didn’t, and that drug, she said, has been her saving grace.
“There’s so much hope,” she said. “I’ve never looked at my outlook to be grim.”
By no means has the road been easy, Kaufman said. Some days, she’s reminded of her mortality.
Early on, Kaufman tried traditional chemotherapy. She lost her hair, her weight and her energy, and that first Christmas, she said, is a blur.
“I was present, but I was fighting,” she said, remembering sitting at home with her two young adult daughters and her husband, Ken.
With immunotherapy, which she receives intravenously every three weeks, Kaufman said she sometimes forgets she even has cancer.
“I thank God for me still being here (and) putting the right people in place in front of me so that I am still here,” she said.
Kaufman will spend Christmas with her daughters and husband, a quiet affair in their new Summerlin home.
She’s thankful for the time with family around the holidays, she said. She’s also thankful for her drug.
Daniel said he overcame low points — like when eating became too difficult because of the sores lining his mouth — with the strength of his loved ones rooting for him. He choked back tears as he described the agonizing uncertainty that follows a cancer diagnosis.
“The hardest part, truthfully, is not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he said. “It really, really helped me a ton having positive people.”
When Christmastime comes, Daniel’s girlfriend Yvette will decorate the Christmas tree with Daniel’s 4-year-old granddaughter, Aspyn. The house is usually lined with lights — the grandkids like it, he explained.
“I’m in good spirits,” Daniel said ahead of the holiday. “I’m expecting a big crowd.”
He added: “Even though it’s cancer, even though it’s chemo, it has not changed my lifestyle one bit.”