Jun. 25—In August 2015, Joplin native Michael Thompson was suffering from a small cough that had suddenly cropped up days earlier. Soon after, he was spitting up blood.
It was inside the Freeman Cornell-Beshore Cancer Institute a few days later that he and his wife Mindy learned the harsh reality of the situation — he had inoperable stage 4 lung cancer.
It was, literally, the stuff of nightmares, he said. It was here where his oncologist, Freeman's Dr. Matthew D. Miller, DO, laid out a rather grim future.
"My options were no treatment, 30 to 40 days of no suffering," Thompson said. "With treatment, it would maybe be 90 days or six months — it was unknown. Of course, you're devastated. My wife and I ... were just speechless. But (Dr. Miller) was so ... clear and honest with us that we decided to go with treatments. I had too many things to do before the end of 30 days."
From mid-August through the last week of December, Thompson underwent chemotherapy. It was as bad as people with cancer say it is, he said, and the drugs churning in his veins "were harsh." Regardless, he stuck with it because "I actually knew a couple of people who quit doing chemo and passed away from lung cancer," he said.
On Christmas morning, Thompson's will to fight had taken a severe tumble, and he felt as if the world around him were closing in. He felt that, despite the chemotherapy, his days on Earth were numbered.
And that's when a Christmas miracle occurred.
"I was truly blessed," Thompson said.
In early 2016, Miller began treating Thompson with a nontraditional chemotherapy drug called Opdivo, which is a type of medicine that works directly with the body's immune system to fight cancer cells. Miller gave the go-ahead despite early tests indicating Thompson would not respond favorably to the drug. But the opposite effect occurred almost immediately. "As I recall, the imaging was favorable relatively early and remained unchanged," Miller said.
"Cancer is smart, and unfortunately it develops ways to escape and evade and hide from the body's immune system," Miller continued. Opdivo "pulls the cover off the (hiding) cancer cells, exposing them and allowing the immune system to do its job and fight. It was the best-case scenario."
Even better, Miller said, the drug doesn't cause bone marrow suppression, nerve damage and loss of hair and severe nausea like the traditional chemotherapy drugs often do.
And six years later — a far cry from that initial 90-day span from 2015 — Thompson's scans continue to show favorable results. Sure, he'll be taking treatments for the remainder of his life. But thanks to Opdivo, the cancer has shrunk in size and has been contained. It hasn't spread to other parts of the body.
"If (Dr. Miller) is happy, I can promise you I'm happy," the 64-year-old said on Wednesday with a chuckle. "My body is now fighting the cancer now, not the drugs. So that's the big one. It has served me well."
Kevin McClintock is features editor for The Joplin Globe.