At age 24, Kellie McKenna was diagnosed with breast cancer. After having lost her mother to breast and colon cancer as a child, Kellie had been extremely proactive about her own cancer care, having many conversations with her oncologists at the time and going the extra mile to educate herself about the disease and her treatment options.
Now more than 20 years later—a breast cancer survivor—Kellie has been diagnosed with uterine cancer, and while undergoing pre-diagnostic testing to prepare for treatment, a mass on her lung was also found to be malignant. Her determination to be in control over her care and treatment as much as possible has not waned.
“I’m the type of person who needs to know everything. I need to be a part of the conversation, and not just be talked to by my doctors about what needs to be done,” says Kellie, a patient of Dr. Jason Wright, division chief of gynecologic oncology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian. “I feel like I’m part of the team with Dr. Wright and all of my [specialists]. We have had some very tough conversations, but the communication is there and it gives me a sense of control.”
These open lines of communication have led Kellie to her current course of treatment: immunotherapy. While cancer immunotherapy, a revolutionary technique that activates the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells, has been successful for certain cancer types like lung and breast, it is not typically used to treat uterine cancer.
After a series of chemotherapy and radiation, Kellie’s cancer had progressed. She had been reading up on immunotherapy, and discussed with Dr. Wright whether she was eligible for this course of treatment. “I was so happy when he said, ‘Yes, and let’s do it.’”
Kellie started immunotherapy in December of 2017 after getting approved use for the treatment due to her tumor type, and this August she completed her 24th course of treatment. Her scans have remained clear, and she has experienced very minimal side effects. During this time, Kellie found herself taking on a caregiver role to her ill father, who sadly passed away this spring.
“This immunotherapy allowed me to function in a way I know that chemotherapy would never have, and it gave me the quality of life to be with my father those last two years,” she says. “Immunotherapy is allowing me to live my life.”
Indeed, cancer immunotherapy is on the cutting edge, and data is still being collected on how effective it is for certain cancer types in patients. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has slowly been approving the use of immunotherapy and combination immunotherapy in a few cancer types. In March, the FDA approved the first immunotherapy treatment in breast cancer and just this month, immunotherapy received FDA approval for esophageal cancer.
Kellie was just starting her career in corporate communications when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and age 13 when her mother died of the disease. She witnessed her father care for her mother and “get his master’s and PhD in cancer, all without going to school.” His tenacity and strength motivates her, and maintaining this attitude, this fight, is what keeps her focused and positive.
“I truly believe that had I not been the type of person I am or if I had a different attitude, I don’t know if I’d be in the same position today,” she says. “Not everyone is a warrior or a fighter and it can be exhausting being a cancer patient, but everyone can have hope. That is really what got me through. I have my bad days still, but I always have hope and that is what I hang on to. As my father always said, and taught me, 'where there is life, there is hope'.”
-Melanie A. Farmer