DETROIT - Joe Stech is from Spencerville, Indiana, a small town about three hours from Detroit. Every three weeks, Stech makes the trip to the Motor City and back. It's a journey of hope that a growing number of patients are making.
Stech is fighting lung cancer. When he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2010, the prognosis from doctors was grim.
"Without chemo, I probably had six to nine months. With chemo I had 15 to 18 months," said Stech.
Even with chemotherapy, Stech struggled with worsening symptoms.
"I couldn't do much of anything without coughing. Talking would make me cough, walking, any physical activity," said Stech.
But this volunteer firefighter was determined to fight. Stech got married, even though he worried about leaving his new bride with a sick husband and medical bills.
"She said no, she was sticking with me, it was part of God's plan. It was meant to be, and she still wanted to marry me," said Stech.
Stech has never smoked. He has a type of lung cancer called ALK-positive. It makes up just 5 percent of lung cancers, but it's more common in non-smokers.
Stech was accepted into a clinical trial in Indiana. That drug worked for 18 months, but then stopped.
"I knew it had stopped working because my cough starting coming back," said Stech. "When I got scanned and the doctor said the cancer is growing again, I was not surprised. We were sort of prepared for it."
Stech's wife Klare turned to the Internet and found the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit.
"He found out that we have this trial, so he contacted our cancer center," said Dr. Shirish Gedgeel, a Karmanos oncologist who specializes in treating lung cancer.
Gedgeel said in the last two to three years, researchers have made great strides in developing targeted treatments that attack weaknesses in a patient's specific cancer.
"I think we are in what I would call the 'Golden Era' of what we would term as 'molecular therapeutics' in cancer," said Gedgeel. "We understand better what drives the cancer and makes the cancer grow. There are new drugs that are coming in, based on that understanding, and many of these drugs right now are only available in clinical trials."
Those clinical trials are conducted at a few select centers across the country, including the Karmanos Cancer Institute.
Barbara Manica is the investigational drug manager at Karmanos. She said of the last 34 new cancer drugs on the market, 17 were tested at Karmanos.
"We are a very active center for investigational trials," said Manica. "We have some trials in the country where we might be only site."
Right now, there are 240 drug trials in progress at Karmanos. One of those drugs is helping Stech.
"I knew almost within a week that it was working," said Stech.
Because it's part of an early clinical trial, doctors can't share the name of the drug Stech is taking. He takes the pill twice a day and has experienced few side effects. It's not a cure, but it's buying precious time.
"It's priceless. Never dreamed I would have seen my 50th birthday," said Stech. "If it wasn't for these clinical trials, I would six feet under by now. To be here today, it's a miracle. There are thousands of people in the same boat as I am in that need these case study drugs to survive."
Stech's first doctor wasn't aware of the latest advances in molecular therapeutics. Stech wants other patients to know, you need to do your homework.
"My philosophy was you have to trust your doctor. 'Cause he knows it. But I've learned since then that you also need to help yourself too and get involved."
Gedgeel also encourages patients to be active in their care.
"It is possible that the doctor is not aware of the different trials," said Gedgeel. "I'm not trying to say that clinical trials are for every cancer patient. There are effective standard treatments. But once those standard treatments have failed, I think patients need to explore clinical trials."
Stech said he's a planner, and it's tough not knowing what the future might hold. But he has hope and faith.
"The only way to be is to move forward, and stay positive, and try something. If it doesn't work, you tried, and maybe whatever happens, you can help somebody else in the future," said Stech. "The Lord still does miracles."
To learn about clinical trials taking place across the country, click here.
To visit the Karmanos Cancer Institute website, click here.
For more information about the Karmanos Cancer Institute's 31st Annual Dinner, click here.
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