Stage IV Lung Cancer Patient Thrives after Clinical Trial

University of Kansas Cancer Center

The KU Clinical Research Center, supported by JCERT funding, offers cutting-edge clinical trials which lead to new cancer therapies every day. 

Kenneth Willard wasn’t even aware of a lump on his neck until his co-worker asked him about it.

“I don’t know how he spotted the lump,” Willard recalled. “But I knew it needed to be checked out.”

A visit with his primary doctor and an ear, nose and throat specialist followed. Biopsies revealed a diagnosis Willard never expected: At 55 years old, he had stage IV non-small cell lung cancer.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death. Willard’s non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer.  In stage IV, the most advanced stage of lung cancer, the cancer has spread beyond the lungs. In Willard’s case, the cancer was in both lungs and had metastasized to his spine, lymph nodes and adrenal glands.

Overwhelmed, Willard asked his oncologist, Dr. Stephen Williamson, about treatment options. At the time, Dr. Williamson was director of The University of Kansas Cancer Center’s Early Phase Clinical Trials Unit, housed at the KU Clinical Research Center (KUCRC). Dr. Williamson told Willard about a phase 1 clinical trial evaluating a new drug combination in people with advanced cancer.

In an early phase clinical trial, researchers investigate the efficacy, safety, side effects and dosages of new treatments and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, enacted in 2010, mandates that health plans cover routine costs of care for people participating in cancer clinical trials.

After careful consideration, Willard chose to take part in the study.

His trial evaluated how two drugs could work together to stimulate the immune system to fight the cancer. Willard received intravenous treatments every three weeks for two years. He said he remained in “fairly good shape” throughout the study. His primary side effects were fever, chills and drowsiness following each treatment.

Promising Results

Scans showed the cancer did not spread during the two-year period of Willard’s clinical trial. By the end of the study, investigators found the drug combination increases the number of immune cells that can penetrate the tumor’s microenvironment, leading to encouraging response rates. The findings were published in Cancer Discovery in August 2020.

Early phase clinical trials like the one Willard participated in help physicians understand how a new drug works within a particular group of patients. If a new treatment is successful in one phase, it proceeds to more testing in the next phase. Dr. Joaquina Baranda, who became director of the Early Phase Clinical Trials Unit after Dr. Williamson’s retirement, reports that researchers now have launched more trials studying the drug combination in other cancer types.

A Support Team

Willard credits his strong support team, including wife Helene, with helping him maintain a positive attitude throughout his cancer journey.

“I would tell Kenneth stage IV lung cancer isn’t a death sentence,” Helene Willard said. “It just means it has traveled to another place in your body.”

Still, it can be difficult to not fixate on a cancer diagnosis. Staying busy helps. Willard and Helene have been active their entire lives. They take their dogs on long walks. He enjoys riding his bicycle and she swims.

Life-Changing Treatments

Lung cancer makes up about 25% of cancer deaths, though the numbers are declining. From 2014 to 2018, the death rates for men with lung cancer dropped by 5% each year. These declines are due to more people not smoking or quitting smoking, as well as medical advances in diagnosis and treatment. Immunotherapy, alone or in combination with other treatments, has improved outcomes for people with lung cancer. Early phase trials, like the one Willard participated in, are vital tools in developing better, more effective therapies.

The KU CRC is funded by the Johnson County Education Research Triangle (JCERT) to develop and test new cancer therapies.

“The researchers and resources available at the University of Kansas Cancer Center’s Early Phase Clinical Trials Unit helps us offer cutting-edge clinical trials, which leads to new cancer therapies every day,” Baranda said. “We’ve been recognized at the national level for our efforts. That’s very gratifying because, at the end of the day, we know that means we’re helping more people with cancer.”

“I am so happy that, somehow, we were in the right place at the right time,” Helene Willard said. “Considering the circumstances, the clinical trial was the best thing that could’ve happened to us.”