Joe’s Story: Finding Compassionate Care and Cutting Edge Clinical Trials

Patient Joe Graves

As a veteran attorney, Joseph (Joe) Graves is accustomed to putting his clients’ needs first and championing their cases. But these days, Joe is making it a priority to focus on another very important client—himself. More than five years ago, Joe was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and continues his battle to this day.

Joe had been getting routine prostate cancer screenings after he turned 45, so when he was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer, he says he was “bewildered, confused, and scared.” 

“At the time, I didn’t know much about prostate cancer,” says Joe, who was 50 when he was diagnosed. After first turning to the Internet for answers, which Joe admits is one of the worst things any newly diagnosed cancer patient can do, he dove deep into researching oncologists, cancer centers, and treatment options. For Joe, finding the leaders in prostate cancer care was an important part of making his decision about where to start his treatment. 

After meeting several oncologists in person, he quickly realized that finding the “right doctor” was not only about expertise.

“So many doctors are smart, so many know what they’re doing. What makes a difference is how they approach your care,” says Joe. “I was looking for decision-making and judgment by someone who I can trust, someone who I trust making those difficult decisions with me.” 

Joe met Dr. Charles Drake in late 2014 while Dr. Drake was still at Johns Hopkins. Joe had just undergone surgery and had been in hormone and radiation therapy under Dr. Drake’s care. 

“Dr. Drake was the most optimistic. He was compassionate, and he listened,” says Joe. “That was a big deal. He was hopeful.” 

A nationally recognized genitourinary oncologist and researcher, Dr. Drake is pioneering the advancement of cancer immunotherapy. In 2016, Columbia University and NewYork-Presbyterian recruited Dr. Drake to lead their cancer immunotherapy program and direct genitourinary oncology. Since his appointment, Dr. Drake and his collaborators have been awarded two prestigious Prostate Cancer Foundation Challenge Awards, both totaling $1 million in research funding. The awards are funding advancements in prostate cancer research, and specifically supporting an innovative immunotherapy clinical trial, called MAGIC-8, being led by Dr. Drake and Dr. Matthew Dallos, another genitourinary oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia.

With Dr. Drake’s help, Joe made the decision to enroll in the MAGIC-8 clinical trial at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC). Joe is receiving cancer immunotherapy, an innovative treatment that fights cancers with a patient’s own immune system. This rapidly evolving field of cancer research holds a great deal of promise as more and more data show long-term benefit in some patients.  

In recent laboratory studies, Dr. Drake and his team found that the immune suppressive protein IL-8 can be highly expressed in prostate cancer, and that blocking IL-8 markedly increases an anti-cancer immune response. The MAGIC-8 clinical trial was designed by Drs. Drake and Dallos to deliver a novel combination therapy:  a triple threat that combines the immune therapy anti-PD-1, a novel drug designed to block IL-8 and a short course of very active hormonal therapy.

Joe started on the MAGIC-8 trial in March and has been responding well, experiencing only minimal side effects. He keeps an active life, running his own law firm, making time for walks, and heading to the gym routinely. Researching immunotherapy on his own, Joe is optimistic about its key role in the future of cancer care, and in his experience, enrolling in a clinical trial has added to his optimism.

“On a clinical trial, you’re getting an opportunity for treatment that isn’t available yet,” says Joe. “If you want an extraordinary result, you have to be open to doing different things and trying treatments that are more cutting edge.” 

It has been almost six years since Joe was first diagnosed with prostate cancer, and he says what keeps him going is remaining positive, and sticking with an oncologist he fully trusts and who also wholeheartedly cares. 

“When I have a question for Dr. Drake, he responds right away. He cares about me. He wants me to do well,” says Joe. “Having cancer, things can go bad but why kick the hope away from the patient and only focus on what can go wrong? Bad things happen, but good things can happen for patients, too.” 

-Melanie A. Farmer