Head and neck cancers are the sixth most common cancers worldwide, in large part due to the presence of the HPV virus. Now, researchers are testing an immunotherapy treatment they say is highly effective for patients with cancer that spreads or comes back.
Sixty-six-year-old Leonard Monteith led a healthy lifestyle. That’s why sudden problems with his mouth caught his attention.
“I noticed that when I would stick my tongue out it would deviate to one side and I thought, that’s not right,” Keith said.
Doctors found an inch-wide tumor at the base of Leonard’s tongue. He was diagnosed with HPV positive cancer.
Nabil Saba, M.D., FACP, a medical oncologist at Emory University Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta, Georgia, explained, “The traditional treatment for head and neck cancer is really toxic and exhaustive and leads to side effects that are very significant.”
After treatment, Leonard’s cancer went away for six months, but then it came back in his lungs. Dr. Saba is a nationally-known expert in the treatment of head and neck cancers. He thought Leonard would be a good candidate for a new therapy.
“Immunotherapy is really, I think, a complete game changer,” said Saba.
Dr. Saba said two separate immunotherapy drugs are showing real promise. A drug called Nivolumab blocks the cancer receptors, allowing the body’s immune system to fight the cancer. Another drug, Pembrolizumab also works in a similar way. Because the trials are ongoing, Dr. Saba can’t say which specific drug Leonard was on.
Dr. Saba said, “He had very good response to the treatment, to the point where we could not see any more lung lesions on the scan.”
Leonard has been improving for three years, but he knows his condition could change, without warning.
“I just live my life as I think I would have anyway,” Leonard said.
Doctors say the survival rates for patients who continued on Nivolumab were twice of those who did not take the immunotherapy drug. Twenty percent of the patients on the drug had their tumors shrink.