Used to be that a Stage IV non-small-cell lung cancer diagnosis was pretty much cut-and-dried, with an average life span of one year. And although Paul Wolford of Overland Park, Kansas, didn’t exactly look death in the face and laugh when he received the diagnosis on July 28, 2015, the nonsmoker gathered the strength of his family, faith and professional goal-setting skills to stay upbeat and focused for more than two years, despite having a disease that can be brutal and swift.
The first drug Wolford’s oncologist, Joseph Stilwill, M.D., a board-certified, fellowship-trained hematology/oncology specialist at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Menorah Medical Center, prescribed was Tarceva, a 12-year-old targeted-therapy drug for non-small-cell lung cancer.
“The only side effects I had were minor skin issues and fatigue, but within four to five days of taking Tarceva, I could tell it was working,” Wolford recalls.
Along with his positivity and dedication to living in the present, 60-year-old Wolford, vice president of sales and marketing for a large transportation company, committed himself to reaching milestone after milestone post-diagnosis.
“When I was told I had a primary tumor in my right lung and a small one in the left, that the cancer had spread to lymph nodes and that surgery wasn’t an option, the first goal was making it to my daughter Jennifer’s wedding,” Wolford says.
Check that goal off the list; the proud father walked the beautiful bride down the aisle on July 2, 2016.
In late fall 2015, a scan revealed that the drug shrunk the right lung tumor in half, eradicated the left-lung tumor and cleared up lymph nodes. But eight months after starting the drug and experiencing initial success, Wolford sensed Tarceva was no longer performing its magic. By July 7, 2016, tests showed the right lung tumor had once again started to mutate. In December 2016 Stilwill suggested a strategy with Tagrisso, a drug he had followed since the FDA approved it in November 2015 for treatment of metastatic mutation-positive non-small-cell lung cancer.
"This diagnosis changes your life, there’s no doubt, and it would be easy to think of the worse-case scenario, but I’m blessed to have a strong relationship with Kate, my foundation of faith and a fantastic rapport with Dr. Stilwill, nurse navigator Amy Norton and the rest of the compassionate care team at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Menorah Medical Center."
Although Wolford can’t explain why his body has responded to treatment when many others with his cancer don't fare as well, he believes his state of mind, spirit of gratitude and physical activity to promote physical well-being play a major role in his continued health.
“I literally had no side effects from Tagrisso and, to this day, it’s held the tumor at bay,” Wolford says. “Just by looking at me, no one would know I have Stage IV lung cancer. Granted, it’s a tough diagnosis but I don’t dwell on it and it certainly doesn’t define me. My breathing isn’t 100 percent, but that doesn’t prevent me from living my life to the fullest. Four or five days a week I spend 45 minutes on my elliptical and walking, eat a healthy diet, travel for my job and enjoy activities with Kate, my wife of 36 years, and family and friends.”
On September 11, 2017, eight months after starting the Tagrisso regimen, Wolford had a scan to assess the right-lung tumor. The following day, Stilwill delivered good news.
“The tumor hasn’t grown,” Wolford says.
So, Wolford has met his second goal: to live two years after the preliminary diagnosis.
Overall, Wolford’s life goal is to remain positive every day, to make memories and to live in the moment.
“I firmly believe that, at some point, I will have stretched out my time long enough to see more progress in the treatment and, hopefully, cure of my cancer,” he says. “This diagnosis changes your life, there’s no doubt, and it would be easy to think of the worse-case scenario, but I’m blessed to have a strong relationship with Kate, my foundation of faith and a fantastic rapport with Dr. Stilwill, nurse navigator Amy Norton and the rest of the compassionate care team at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Menorah Medical Center. I haven’t had to spend a night in the hospital or go through standard chemotherapy.”
When it comes to Wolford’s goal-setting, he’s far from done.
“Yes, there are lots of ups and downs with cancer,” he says. “But how fortunate I am to have lived as normal a life that you could possibly pray for the past two years. I chalk it up to research and technology and an oncologist confident in applying that to my disease. There’s always, always a potential for a window of hope. I’m looking forward to the next three years.”
Wolford’s third—and current—goal is to live three-and-a-half years beyond the original diagnosis.
And as far as Wolford is concerned, that window of hope is still wide open.