(BPT) – At age 28, the last thing Stephen Estrada expected was to be diagnosed with cancer, let alone Stage IV colorectal cancer. His outlook did not look good as his diagnosis came with a five-year survival rate of just 13 percent. Nevertheless, Estrada went forward with different treatments and ended up enrolling in a clinical trial. Now 30, Estrada’s disease is stable thanks to a new wave of cancer treatments called immunotherapies, and he is enjoying life in Denver, Colorado, with his partner, Kenley, and two dogs, Gretel and Joey.
Colorectal cancer — which refers to cancer of the colon and/or rectum—is the third most common type of cancer among both men and women in the United States, and is the second deadliest. This type of cancer begins in the lining of the colon or rectum and in some cases, like Estrada’s, can spread into other organs and lymph nodes.
Estrada received his diagnosis after a CT scan showed a “cancer-like mass” in his colon, which led to an emergency colon resection. After healing from his surgery, Estrada started a six-month medication regimen that combined two common types of treatment shown to improve survival for patients with colorectal cancer. The combination regimen showed promise, shrinking Estrada’s tumor enough to qualify him for a special type of surgical procedure for tumors that might be otherwise inoperable or difficult to reach.
However, the tumor surgery ended up being much more invasive than expected, and unfortunately the procedure failed. This led Estrada to search for and find other options, including a cancer immunotherapy clinical trial that was under way for colorectal cancer. He enrolled in June 2014.
How immunotherapy works
This new class of treatment, immunotherapy, works by giving the immune system the upper hand in fighting cancer and restores its natural ability to eliminate cancer cells. Cancer immunotherapy has already demonstrated the potential to cure multiple types of cancer and offers long-term protection against disease with fewer side effects than standard cancer regimens. As of March 2016, there are more than 1,000 immunotherapy clinical trials under way in multiple cancer types, including brain cancer, head and neck cancer, and leukemia.
“For more than 60 years, the Cancer Research Institute has driven innovative immunotherapy research,” said Dr. Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, chief executive officer and director of scientific affairs at the Cancer Research Institute. “Now, we are seeing a practice-changing shift in cancer treatment and real cures, thanks to this critical research.”
In Estrada’s case, his particular type of colorectal cancer, known as MSI-high, has responded incredibly well to the cancer immunotherapy treatment, a checkpoint inhibitor, he received in the clinical trial. This type of immunotherapy has shown positive results in many different types of cancer and is currently approved by the FDA to treat advanced melanoma, lung cancer, and kidney cancer.
“I think cancer immunotherapy, and the potential cure it offers, should be accessible to everyone. Being in a clinical trial has improved my life a million times over,” says Estrada. “Every cancer patient deserves the best, and it is important to do your own research on potential treatments, clinical trials, and to be your own advocate. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Keep going, keep reading, keep asking questions.”
“The results we are seeing in clinical trials with MSI-high colorectal patients are very encouraging, even more so because colorectal cancer has typically been harder to treat with immunotherapies,” said Dr. O’Donnell-Tormey. “As we continue to learn more about the specific genetic profiles of patients with colorectal cancer who respond better to immunotherapy, we come that much closer to providing real, lasting hope for people with this devastating disease.”
There are many other cancer patients and survivors, like Estrada, who have been given new treatment options thanks to cancer immunotherapy and the researchers and institutions behind them. To learn more about Estrada’s story and how cancer immunotherapies are changing the face of cancer treatment, visit www.cancerresearch.org/crc/.