There’s no doubt that 68-year-old Steve Harvey is tough. He ran his first marathon at age 55 and then three more over the next decade. Unfortunately, those physical trials were nothing compared to the challenges that awaited him.
“Through immunotherapy, we can reawaken the immune system, which produces significant benefits for many patients.”
In 2014, nine months after running his fourth marathon, Mr. Harvey was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a cancer of white blood cells known as lymphocytes. Six months of chemotherapy and radiation therapy put the disease into remission. But during treatment, he learned he had squamous cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer.
“My CLL treatment prevented me from being treated for the squamous cell carcinoma, which spread from my scalp to lymph nodes in my neck,” Mr. Harvey recalls. “Within six months of my new fight with cancer, most of my teeth had been pulled and I’d had nerves, lymph nodes and muscles removed from my neck.”
The Immunotherapy Option
Surgery along with more chemotherapy and radiation followed. By May 2016, though, the squamous cell carcinoma remained. Mr. Harvey worried that he was out of luck.
John Ross Clark, MD, felt otherwise. The clinical director of the Center for Head and Neck Cancers at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, Dr. Clark recommended that Mr. Harvey try an emerging treatment for squamous cell carcinoma: immunotherapy.
Mr. Harvey began immunotherapy in June 2016. The results have been so positive that he is training for his first race since 2013: the Mass General Cancer Center Everyday Amazing Race 5K, to be run on Sept. 10, 2017.
Revolution in Cancer Treatment
Immunotherapy—which harnesses the body’s immune system to fight cancer—represents a revolution in cancer treatment. For decades, the immune system was thought to play little role in the development or control of cancer. In recent years, however, researchers have come to see a clear connection.
“At the time of cancer diagnosis, the immune system in many patients has been turned off by cancer,” Dr. Clark explains. “Through immunotherapy, we can reawaken the immune system, which produces significant benefits for many patients.”
“I had been struggling beforehand, feeling worn out and tired, and suddenly things were almost normal.”
In terms of cancer treatment, the value of immunotherapy was first defined with malignant melanoma. It is now the standard of care for malignant melanoma along with some lung cancers and kidney cancers. Many other cancers could soon join the list.
Although immunotherapy is not yet the standard of care for squamous cell carcinoma, Dr. Clark believed it might hold promise for Mr. Harvey. “In general, immunotherapy has shown greater activity than traditional chemotherapy as well as less toxicity and fewer side effects,” Dr. Clark notes.
Quickly Seeing a Difference
Mr. Harvey started immunotherapy with the expectation he would undergo treatment for one hour every two weeks for the rest of his life. He quickly saw a difference in his health.
“Two weeks after I started, all of my white blood cell counts [previously abnormal owing to CLL] were right on,” he says. “It was really encouraging. I had been struggling beforehand, feeling worn out and tired, and suddenly things were almost normal.”
Mr. Harvey has continued to respond very well. There is no evidence of any squamous cell carcinoma in his body, Dr. Clark affirms, while his CLL remains in remission. Better yet, new studies have suggested that two years of treatment may be all that is needed for maximal benefit of immunotherapy. As a result, Mr. Harvey’s treatment is scheduled to conclude in June 2018.
Getting Back to Life
Improved health has given Mr. Harvey the energy to revisit many of his varied interests, such as writing poetry, drawing and traveling internationally. Earlier this summer, the Medford, Mass., resident returned to running. What sparked his interest? Seeing an ad for the Everyday Amazing Race on the subway.
“I hadn’t run since being diagnosed with CLL, so training has been tiring,” he says. “I run every other day. Of course, I’ve never been fast. My idea is to run the race, not win it.”
Mr. Harvey takes pride in running to raise money for the Cancer Center. (A portion of race proceeds will support research in immunotherapy, a major priority for Mass General, and other cancer treatments.) He is grateful for the care he has received from Dr. Clark and Jeremy Abramson, MD, at the Mass General Cancer Center as well as Barrett Newsome, DO, of Cooley Dickinson Hospital, an affiliate of Mass General and Partners HealthCare.
Inspired by Other Runners
The symbolic importance of his effort is not lost on Mr. Harvey.
“I want Cancer Center patients to see there are other people who went through what they’re going through, and survived.”
“I know I’ve been inspired by others who have had cancer and have run marathons or trained hard after getting ill,” he says. “I want Cancer Center patients to see there are other people who went through what they’re going through, and survived.”
And so on Sept. 10, 2017, Mr. Harvey will run alongside his four children in the Everyday Amazing Race 5K. Yes, he has run much longer races in locations as far away as Ghana. But after all he has been through, this one will be his most rewarding yet.
“I hope someone sees what I’m doing and says, ‘Okay, he did it; I’m going to do it, too,’ “ he says. “If one person says that, then this will be worth it.”
Please visit the Mass General Cancer Center Everyday Amazing Race website to learn how you can get involved, including making a gift in support of an individual or team.