Jane’s Story: Cancer Immunotherapy Brings Hope and Healing

After spending part of 2015 in and out of emergency rooms with severe abdominal pain, Jane Hanley unfortunately received a cancer diagnosis at the start of 2016, just a few days after ringing in the new year.

Jane Hanley

Jane Hanley, lung cancer patient on an immunotherapy clinical trial at the HICCC

“The ER surgeon told me he thought it was cancer and that I would need to see an oncologist right away,” says Jane. “I learned soon after that I had multiple tumors, 11 to be exact, and was told I had only six to nine months to live. I was devastated.”

Officially diagnosed with lung cancer, Jane immediately underwent chemotherapy and radiation and suffered severe side effects from the treatment. She felt so sick that she made a decision then to stop therapy altogether. Less than a month later, her then-oncologist suggested she meet with an associate of his, Dr. Naiyer Rizvi at Columbia/NewYork-Presbyterian. Dr. Rizvi directs thoracic oncology and co-directs cancer immunotherapy at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) at Columbia/NewYork-Presbyterian and is a pioneer in the exploding field of immunotherapy.

Cancer immunotherapy is a type of treatment that directs a patient’s own immune system to recognize and fight cancer cells. To date, the novel treatment has made a huge difference in the lives of patients with advanced disease, and patients on immunotherapy typically experience far less side effects compared with chemotherapy.

Under the care of Dr. Rizvi and Dr. Catherine Shu, who is the clinical director of the Thoracic Medical Oncology Service at the HICCC, Jane started on an immunotherapy clinical trial in the spring of 2016. Jane’s cancer had metastasized, or spread, throughout the body, and she had large palpable lesions on her hip that caused her pain even when lying on her side. Since starting treatment, these lesions have disappeared. She continues on the trial with treatments about once a month. The best news of all, her latest scans show no active signs of cancer.

“Jane has done and continues to do so well,” says Dr. Shu. “To watch her go from debilitating disease to functioning normally has been nothing short of amazing.”

“I really look to Dr. Rizvi and Dr. Shu as my life savers. I wouldn’t say I was at peace with my decision four years ago to stop treatment, but I honestly had been preparing myself for the end until I met with them,” adds Jane. “I feel very lucky. I started the treatment in March of 2016 and just three months later I was back to work part-time and I have been feeling great ever since.”

Knowing very little about clinical trials at the time, Jane took a chance because she immediately felt reassured by her doctors and care team at Columbia/NewYork-Presbyterian.

“Whenever I come back for my appointments, it’s like I’m visiting with friends. We talk about everything, and we celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, new babies,” says Jane. “It’s tough to make decisions when you are first diagnosed with cancer but once you have that trust in your doctors and the nurses and everyone caring for you, nothing else matters.”

-Melanie A. Farmer