Originally diagnosed with uterine cancer, Irisaida was dismayed when, after 11 months of remission, her doctors informed her that the cancer had metastasized to her lungs. She was now considered a Stage IV cancer patient and was advised to receive a lobectomy, followed by a standard course of chemotherapy. After completing 6.5 hours of chemo, it became obvious that something else needed to be done. Despite the aggressive treatment, the cancer had continued to spread and was now attacking the upper lobe, the pleura and the mediastinum, completely compromising Irisaida’s ability to breathe. “That is when I started seeking other options,” she said.
Irisaida consulted other doctors and it was agreed upon that, because she had the PDL-1 immune inhibitor, she would qualify for an immunotherapy trial. “I had no other choice, the chemo wasn’t working and without treatment my doctors only gave me 18–24 months to live,” she explained. Six months into the treatment, her cancer began to shrink and now, two years later, there is no evidence of disease.
Chemo vs Immunotherapy
Chemotherapy is a treatment in which a drug is injected into the veins (intravenously or through an IV) in the hopes of killing cancer cells. The problem is that these drugs cannot differentiate between good and bad cells, but instead focuses on all rapidly dividing cells withing the body. This can cause side effects like nausea, fatigue and hair loss, lowering of the white blood cell count and possible infection.
In contrast, immunotherapy works by boosting a patient's overall immune response so that it can strengthen the body and combat the cancer cells. Potential side effects result from an overstimulated or misdirected immune response, “for instance, you may develop neuropathy, or it may affect your thyroid and you are prone to autoimmune diseases if your body starts attacking itself,” Irisaida said. This is why, even though the treatment was working well, her doctors monitored her very closely.
Beginning to Heal
Irisaida became involved with the Lung Association on the first-year anniversary of her lobectomy. “To help me regain my breathing capacity, one of the exercises that my physical therapist would make me do was go up and down the stairs. I saw an ad for the Fight For Air Climb and took it as a challenge,” she said. “Going up and down stairs became more fun when we were training for the climb.”
Joined by her friends and family from Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, the group climbed together in what they called the celebration of life, and in hopes of not just conquering the stairs but conquering the disease. “The American Lung Association has been a place of hope and support for me.”
Irisaida also joined the 2023 LUNG FORCE Advocacy Day and spoke with her local legislators to ask them to support $51 billion in research funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), $11B in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and to support and protect Medicaid.
After two years of receiving immunotherapy infusions every three weeks, Irisaida’s doctors have paused treatment. “If the cancer appears again, they will put me back on the drug but for now all I have to do is get checked every three months to make sure that I am still in remission and hope for no signs of cancer.”
She is so grateful for the time she has been given and continues to be vocal about the need for continued research. “Stage IV cancer is no longer a death sentence. The level or mortality was really high before options like immunotherapy were available and, though these treatments are not without side effects, they are saving many lives,” she said.
Learn more about immunotherapy and lung cancer research on our website.
Blog last updated: August 25, 2023