‘They didn’t think I was going to last much longer’: Experimental cancer drug saved Wells man’s life

Posted Aug. 29, 2013, at 5:05 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 30, 2013, at 9:30 a.m.
Justin Perry of Wells is beating cancer thanks to an experimental drug.
Contributed image | York County Coast Star
Justin Perry of Wells is beating cancer thanks to an experimental drug.

WELLS, Maine — A Wells man diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer six months ago is now effectively cancer-free following an experimental treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Justin Perry, 23, says the clinical trial under way at the Boston hospital and others around the country “saved [his] life.”

“They didn’t think I was going to last much longer,” Perry said. “I started this clinical trial … and within six weeks on it, it showed roughly 85 to 90 percent of my cancer was gone.

“My 12-week scan showed that 98 percent was gone,” he continued. “My 18-week scan showed that I am just about cancer free.”

Perry, who is a non-smoker, was diagnosed with a rare lung cancer in February. Prior to the diagnosis, the 2008 Wells High School graduate had to catch his breath after climbing a flight of stairs. His doctors later learned the disease had spread to both lungs.

However, the doctors also learned Perry’s tumor had a specific mutation known as an ALK alteration that made him a candidate for the clinical trial. The trial is testing a cancer treatment under development by the Swiss drugmaker Novartis.

Dr. Bruce Johnson, who directs the Dana-Farber/Partners CancerCare Thoracic Oncology Program, said the trial includes “hundreds” of patients at cancer centers around the country. So far, he says, it has shown tremendous results.

“In general, one of the things that’s happened is we’re getting very dramatic responses that last a long time,” he said, noting that it keeps cancer at bay for twice as long as chemotherapy.

The drug, which is taken orally every day, attacks the cancer cells without harming healthy tissue around the tumor. It also has far fewer side-effects that are generally limited to abdominal discomfort.

Perry said he never lost his hair or had nausea and fatigue common among those undergoing chemo or radiation therapies.

The treatment also is being tested for other forms of cancer, Johnson said.

While it has shown great promise, the drug has its limits. For example, although the drug attacks the tumor, it hasn’t been able to destroy all of the cancer cells in the patient’s body, Johnson said. Taking the pill every day is expected to keep those cancer cells in check.

Additional research is necessary to create a drug that completely blocks those cells from reproducing.

“We’re at the one yard line, and we need a big fullback to carry us over the goal line,” Johnson said of the ongoing research process.

Perry, who receives his medication free for participating in the trial, expects to be on the drug for “the foreseeable future.” But that’s a small consolation, he says, for getting a second chance.

An avid outdoorsman, Perry went zip-lining this week at Sunday River and hopes to go saltwater fishing over the holiday weekend. He also enjoys hunting and riding his motorcycle.

“My treatment doesn’t hold me back from doing anything,” he said.

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