Published May 1, 2022
Father of two Greg Gerardy, 50, of Oklahoma City was told he would never run again after losing one lung to lung cancer. Gerardy, now a three-time survivor, just completed the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon.
“That’s one of the first things doctors say, ‘You’ll never run a marathon again,’” Gerardy told TODAY. “But we can still do these things. There’s no reason people should give up hope.”
At age 29, Greg was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, which he described as “tentacle-like” tumor that wrapped around his neck and spine. At first, doctors suspected that it was a pinched nerve causing the pain. Luckily, his knee doctor took the pain more serious, and ordered a scan.
“He told me I had a massive tumor around the spine, into the shoulder and upper thoracic areas,” he recalled of hearing results, and was immediately swooped into surgery. Surgeons were able to remove some of the cancer, but his right lung was not looking good. “It is now a paralyzed, collapsed mass of tissue that’s grown into his chest wall,” he said.
Yet after this horrific health ordeal, Greg was determined to heal, slowly but surely. “I challenged myself to see what I could do little bits at a time,” he said. “I have a little over half of what a normal person has due to the left lung expanding and adapting.”
While he refuses to stop doing things he loves like running and gardening, Greg is adamant about listening to his body to not overdo it, which obviously can be very dangerous. “If I’m digging a hole I have to stop and rest and let my lung refresh,” he said. “You get used to it and listen to your body. If you need a break, let some oxygen get in there.”
Like many cancer patients, Greg has gone through hell and back, and was left by his second wife in the process of “being stuck in a black hole watching life go by.” He decided to do something about it and is happy to report that he has found love again and is engaged to a woman named Cathy Crittenden-Byers.
“I kind of got to a point where I said, I can’t live like this anymore. I’ve got to at least try to do something and be an example for my kids,” he admitted. “They’ve never known me healthy; they’ve only known me sick.”
By sharing his struggle, Greg aims to help others climb out of the rut of self-pity that many people succumb to when dealing with serious illness. “If someone tells me it can’t be done I want to prove them wrong,” and Greg hopes that others will too.
Treatment for lung cancer patients has come a long way since Greg’s initial diagnosis. For advanced stage lung cancer patients, immunotherapy treatment marks a revolution in lung cancer care. The new class of immunotherapy drugs, also known as checkpoint inhibitors, have had encouraging survival rates when used by lung cancer patients.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Brendon Stiles, chief of thoracic surgery & surgical oncology at Montefiore and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, shared how some late stage cancer patients have benefited from immunotherapy treatment without chemotherapy being involved.
“If you have high expression of a protein that we know is targeted by immunotherapy, you may just get immunotherapy alone,” Dr. Stiles said.
One of the main concerns facing physicians is potential side effects of any cancer treatment. “Where we could potentially run into trouble is that some of these (immunotherapy) drugs can cause pneumonitis, inflammation in the lungs. Chemotherapy can cause immunosuppression so that the combination of those may be tough for some patients to take,” he explained.
“It’s going to depend on situation,” Dr. Stiles said. “If a patient is at the start of their stage four course and treatment needs to get started, I personally would offer our standard treatment. If they’ve already had twelve months of immunotherapy and they’re doing well, and things are going okay, maybe it makes sense to skip the dose to keep them away from a medical establishment right now and keep them safe.”
Immunotherapy uses the power of your own immune system to recognize cancer cells and kill them. It has been especially successful in late stage lung cancer, but Dr. Stiles says that clinical trials are developing so it can treat early-stage lung cancer as well.