Jason Connelly has metastatic melanoma. Ellen Rigby has stage-four breast cancer. And Terry Barter has multiple myeloma. Not long ago each of these noncurable cancers would have meant a death sentence. But advances in treatment are not only keeping each patient alive, they are allowing the three to live full lives.
Six years ago, Jason Connelly was diagnosed with early-stage melanoma and had a small growth removed from his back. Doctors at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston said his cancer was gone. But four years later it returned as thousands of tiny tumors in his abdomen. For most people the cancer would have killed them.
"When you're in that situation, you're faced with two choices," Jason recalls. "You can either deal with it and attack it, or you can let it kill you."
He chose to attack it, opting for a toxic treatment called high-dose interleukin-2. It is so potentially lethal it has to be given in the intensive care unit of a hospital. After six months of what he describes as hell, Jason's cancer was gone.
"When you make that transition between being sick and not being sick, it's like being on a train going 80 miles an hour that all of a sudden stops. And you go flying off the train," Jason said of finding out he was in remission.
Jason started a blog called Fighting in Texas, where he shares his experiences with cancer.
When his cancer returned, Jason made a promise to his then 2-year-old son: "I am going to live to see him get married." Jacob is now four and the reason Jason gets up every morning.
In 2001, when Ellen Rigby found out she had breast cancer, it had already spread to her liver. But the type of cancer she has, estrogen receptor positive and HER-2 positive breast cancer, gave her doctors treatment options beyond traditional chemotherapy and radiation.
"The key with metastatic disease is to manage the disease and balance the efficacy of the treatment with the quality of your life. The treatment can be very toxic," explained Ellen.
The toxic treatment is a type of chemotherapy, which Ellen has been taking on and off for six years. But right now her doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York are giving her a hormone therapy, Faslodex, and a targeted therapy called Herceptin. Both have virtually no side effects.
"I live a very full life. I work, I'm very active, I get outdoors, I walk my dog, I play golf, I row," Ellen said. "So it has not interfered overall with my ability to live life to the fullest."
Initially two of Terry Barter's doctors recommended a stem cell transplant, the traditional and often deadly treatment for multiple myeloma, which is cancer of the bone marrow. So Terry went to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Mass.
"I wanted a third opinion and my kids asked me, 'Are you waiting to hear what you want to hear?' And I said, 'You're darn right,'" Terry said emphatically. "I got on an experimental trial for a drug called Revlimid. For me it drove my cancer right into remission. I'm doing fantastic."
Eight years later he is still taking the drug and has seen Italy, bought a Corvette and welcomed a passel of grandchildren.
"I'll go days when I don't even think about having cancer," Terry muses. "I feel like I've licked it. I feel like I can live my life. I don't have to worry about dying of cancer."
There is no cure for metastatic cancer but as Ellen, Jason and Terry prove every day, that doesn't mean they are sitting around waiting to die.
"I've lived with cancer for seven years. I'm doing well. I'm living a full life," Ellen said.
"I'm happier now than I have even been. I'm happier now than I was before I got sick," said Jason.
"Every day is precious. When I get up in the morning and look outside, whether the sun is shining or it's raining, it's a great day," said Terry.