By Karen Flaten
It has been a long year of restrictions; most of us are ready for this pandemic to be over yesterday – or should I say last month? By January of this year, I was feeling pretty depressed about everything we had gone through as a country and ready for things to turn around. Then a friend called and told me a story about a man with incurable cancer who had gotten COVID-19 and nearly died – and had then recovered from cancer! His name was Walter Brown, and he had experienced a miracle.
When I first heard Walter’s story, I began to spread the word like it was the gospel. “He had Covid and cancer, and now he’s cured!” I told everyone I knew. I was so happy to hear about this that I couldn’t contain myself. After a while I began to wonder how it happened. I wondered if the coronavirus had killed his cancer, or if it was the medication that he was treated with that had combated the cancer cells. I thought at the very least I should talk to Walter myself. Walter agreed to tell me his story, and agreed that I could share it with others.
On the phone, Walter’s voice was gravelly. “Please excuse my voice,” he said. “It has sounded like this ever since I had esophageal cancer.” That was back in 2004. It turns out that Walter has had his share of cancer diagnoses. A Vietnam veteran, he survived esophageal cancer, and has had several diagnoses of melanoma (skin cancer) over the years. But this last one was different. It was right around Christmas 2019, when Walter thought he was having a heart attack. Believing it was likely to be his last Christmas, he chose to spend it with his family instead of being seen at a medical facility. “I didn’t want to spend my last Christmas at the hospital,” he said. But by Jan. 1, 2020, he was so sick he was having difficulty breathing, and finally consented to go to the hospital. The doctors focused on heart issues – until they found something else. It was not good news.
Walter was told that the melanoma that had previously been removed from his back had spread, or metastasized, to his lungs and lymph nodes. He was told the cancer in his lymph nodes could be beaten, but the cancer in his lungs was incurable. The cancer could not be cured, but it could be kept at bay with an aggressive treatment that “trains your T-cells to fight the cancer,” as Walter explained it.
Another way of describing this treatment is immunotherapy. According to the Melanoma Research Alliance’s website (https://www.curemelanoma.org), “Immunotherapy is an effective systemic treatment for cancer, including melanoma, because it activates the body’s immune system to fight cancer.” The website goes on to describe systemic treatments as “drugs that reach all parts of your body through the bloodstream. Such drugs fight cancer cells that have metastasized, or spread, from the original tumor to other areas.”
Walter received a full course of the treatments – three doses over the course of two months in January and February 2020. “It’s advertised on TV – two of them together,” he said, when asked about the name of the medication. “Maybe Yetivo?” he thought, along with a second one whose name he couldn’t even begin to remember. When I checked online into medications used to treat melanoma, the names Optiva and Keytruda came up as immunotherapy used to treat metastasized melanoma, particularly when it has spread to the lungs and lymph nodes. Walter thought those might be right. (“Watch the advertisements on TV – they will come up!” he said.)
The treatment was hard on Walter. He had terrible side effects, including muscle issues, trouble swallowing and eating. He even lost his vision for a time - and his hearing was affected as well. For the next few months, he was treated with steroids in order to combat the side effects of the treatment.
By October, Walter and his wife had decided to move into an apartment. They put their home on the market and requested help from the family to make the move. “There’s too much upkeep on a home every day,” said Walter. But by November 2020, Walter had caught Covid-19 and soon so did his wife. His daughter came to help with the move, and she caught it too. By Dec. 6, they were all in the hospital. So, when the house sold, the closing had to be done electronically and at their hospital bedsides. And the move? Friends, family and neighbors made it happen for Walter and his family.
Walter was in the hospital for 31 days. He was only released when he agreed to go into hospice care at home. Friends and family were concerned and ready for the worst. But after a few days, Walter began to feel better. “As soon as I felt like I could get up and take a shower, get dressed, I wanted to get my cancer treatment going again,” he said. “My wife and I went to get tested, but we were still positive [for COVID-19].” Finally, after 15 days of quarantine, Walter was tested for COVID-19 again. This time his test came back negative. What a wonderful feeling! All Walter could think about, though, was making sure he was getting back to his cancer treatment – that had to happen!
Feeling like he could take care of himself for the first time in months, he contacted the cancer center to set up a plan to start treatment again. But the oncologist told him there was no need to come in – he did not have cancer anymore! Walter questioned how they knew that. Apparently, while he was in the hospital, scans had been conducted. He was so sick with the coronavirus, he wasn’t aware it was happening.
Walter has told everyone he knows that he has experienced a miracle. He doesn’t know what happened – if the coronavirus killed his cancer, or if it was one of the medications they gave him to cure Covid-19 that killed his cancer cells…or maybe some combination of the two. He is just glad it is gone. He doesn’t want to know why.
But my mind kept turning. After talking with Walter, I called a friend who runs a lab for a large pharmaceutical company on the East Coast. “I don’t believe it,” he said, when I first told him Walter’s story. He told me stories of neighbors who had been in home hospice care for months, and then were told they did not have cancer. He knew people who had been misdiagnosed at the beginning of the treatment. That was the first idea he had – that the diagnosis had been wrong from the beginning.
But as we talked, my friend told me the story of Viagra: how it had originally been developed to treat heart issues, since it opens up blood vessels – often blocked in heart disease. When a clinical trial was tried, the scientists began to realize that the blood vessels that were opening up were not in the heart! Eventually, this lead to the development and marketing of Viagra as a treatment for erectile dysfunction. I wondered if there was any chance that treatment for Covid-19 could also have another use in treating certain types of cancer.
But my friend did not think this was a story about a cure for cancer based on medication used to treat the coronavirus. Instead, after putting his trained scientist brain to the problem (and without all the clinical details), he said he thought the immunotherapy had worked on the cancer. “The immunotherapy had been working all along,” he said. According to my scientist friend, these new cancer therapies are extremely effective. “Probably,” said my friend, “the treatment was working during the time Walter was affected by Covid-19, and may have even assisted him in fighting the coronavirus.” In any event, it was working in the background against Walter’s cancer, and ultimately, the treatment worked.
My brother-in-law, an oncologist (but not a specialist in metastasized melanomas) working in the Boston area, concurred. He also did not think the coronavirus - or medications designed to combat the virus - cured Walter’s cancer. Instead, he agreed with my friend the scientist: that the immunotherapy had worked in the background, killing cancer cells while Walter was doing other things (including dealing with Covid-19!). “That’s how immunotherapy works,” he said.
When I told Walter what my contacts had said, he didn’t care, and didn’t really want to know the details. Instead, he told me about an incident that had taken place in December 2019. He had gone to a restaurant that he often visited, which tends to be patronized by military or retired military personnel. He was standing in line at the cashier to pay his bill when the man in front of him turned around and handed him a crisp $2 bill. Walter had his wallet out – the man then asked for Walter’s wallet and tucked it inside his wallet. “Don’t remove that,” said the man. “It will bring you luck!”
“I’ve never taken that $2 bill out of my wallet,” said Walter. And the cure of his metastasized cancer? “It’s a miracle!” he said.