They told her she probably had just 18 months to live. That was in 2014. Today, Natalie Kelly is very much alive and, for the most part, feeling well with her cancer in remission. At the time of her diagnosis, she was offered an opportunity to be part of a new clinical trial, allowing her to transition to immunotherapy if chemotherapy was not successful. It’s what Kelly refers to as her “miracle drug.”
“I was not tolerating the chemotherapy very well and my cancer was progressing, so my doctors suggested that we take a different path,” says Kelly, who was 56 years old at the time of her diagnosis. “I started immunotherapy and really believe it is what saved me. I still go in for infusions and they make me tired, but that is really the only side effect. For the most part, I feel good.”
Overseeing Kelly’s care is Suman Rao, MD, a board-certified medical oncologist in the Angelos Center for Lung Diseases at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center. She was a principle investigator for the trial and co-author of the publication that resulted in Kelly’s immunotherapy drug being approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“Immunotherapy, which works by harnessing the power of a person’s immune system, can be an especially effective treatment option for patients who have been diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer,” explains Dr. Rao. “We find that many patients, like Natalie, respond better to this than chemotherapy.”
The choice to seek treatment at MedStar Franklin Square was an easy one for Kelly. Not only was it close to home but, most importantly, she was already aware of the progressive cancer care options the hospital offered. At the time of her diagnosis, her husband, Tim, was also being treated for cancer; his was lymphoma.
“I knew from my husband’s experience that the latest treatment options were available at MedStar Franklin Square,” Kelly says. “My husband was so well cared for. Between the two of us, we have been through a lot. We are so grateful for the care we have received from all of the doctors, clinical trial staff, nurses, medical assistants and even the people at the front desk. Everyone works as a team and I can’t stress enough how wonderful they are.”
Today, both husband and wife are in remission. Kelly continues with immunotherapy infusions every three weeks with a “one day at a time” mindset.
“I have good days and I have bad days,” she notes. “The hardest part for me is always wondering about the ‘what ifs’. If I wake up in the morning and don’t feel well, I wonder if I am coming down with the stomach bug or if what I am feeling is related to my cancer. But I am still here, and that is amazing.”
Seeing Kelly’s progression and her ability to beat the odds, despite her original prognosis, are some of the many reasons Dr. Rao is vested in medical research and is such a strong advocate for clinical trials.
“Natalie is a good example of the outcomes that are possible. She works full time and manages a busy family life. And she has always had such a great attitude. She is one of my star patients,” Dr. Rao says.
Featured in Discover Summer 2017 Magazine.
The clinical trials program at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center is one of the largest in the state, which means that new cancer drugs are often available here that are not offered elsewhere in the region. Patients who are eligible have the opportunity to participate in and potentially benefit from this research.
The Angelos Center for Lung Diseases treats more patients with lung disorders than any other community hospital in Maryland.