Michael's Story: How Clinical Trials Empower Patients

Dr. James McKiernan (left) with Michael Furman at the Velocity Ride

When Michael Furman was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2010, he was 45 years old. Looking back now to the time of diagnosis, he says, “It has been a long road and an interesting journey.”

Furman began his cancer treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and had undergone many of the standard treatment options for his cancer, or has he puts it, “I tried every drug they had”.  In 2015, Furman enrolled in a clinical trial at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) with Dr. James McKiernan, who heads the Department of Urology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center (NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia).  After a period of success following this clinical trial at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia, Furman’s cancer returned, and in May 2017, he underwent an ambitious 10-hour bladder removal and reconstruction surgery performed by Dr. McKiernan. After a successful recovery, Furman was soon active again, and just 5 months later even participated with his wife, Kathleen, and son, David, in Velocity, Columbia’s annual fund-raising bike ride for cancer research. 

Two years later unfortunately, Furman learned that his cancer had metastasized to his lymph nodes. 

“Dealing with cancer, I found that there are a lot of peaks and valleys. There are days where you receive great news, and some days, bad news. There are days where you feel awful and weak and some days where you feel strong,” he says. “Living with cancer, it is important to stay the course.”

So for Furman, part of ‘staying the course’ meant exploring all treatment options, and enrolling in yet another clinical trial. Clinical trials can be the best treatment option for cancer patients, and provide them access to the most leading-edge treatments. 

Furman recently enrolled in an immunotherapy clinical trial led by prominent genitourinary oncologists, Drs. Emerson Lim and Chuck Drake of the HICCC at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that is able to kick one’s immune system into high gear to attack their own cancer cells. Researchers have found that the body’s own immune system may slow down or control cancer growth.

In this trial, Drs. Lim and Drake are studying whether a novel DNA-based vaccine can be injected into the body and awaken the immune system. The vaccine incorporates three proteins which are similar to proteins present on cancer cells, and once these have been injected into a patient’s muscle cells, the gene(s) will instruct proteins that may help their own immune system fight the cancer.

Furman jokingly calls this the “weird science” part of the clinical trial, and since joining the trial in March, his cancer cell growth has slowed and the tumors in his lymph nodes have begun to shrink considerably. Furman, who receives treatment every three weeks, has had a positive response to the immunotherapy to date. In addition to feeling healthy and energetic —Furman manages a busy New York-based law firm and is known to hit the gym regularly with colleagues—he believes strongly that it is important to take advantage of clinical trials. “It is empowering … I want the study to be successful and I really do feel that [clinical trials] give hope to others.” 

For patients who may be considering enrolling in a clinical trial, Furman urges them to ask any and all questions they may have. “Write them down before you get there,” he adds. “There’s no question that is silly, or as they say, the only stupid questions are the one you don’t ask. It is important to be informed.” 

He credits his clinical trials care team at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia for helping him get through the process, and for their dedication. “I never felt like a number at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. You get individualized care,” he says. “We’re all rooting for the same outcome, a good outcome. And, it’s not just Dr. Lim or Dr. Drake who are heavily invested, it’s everyone.” 

Furman, whose cancer journey has included many highs and lows, looks to the Columbia cancer community for constant inspiration. Most notably, this inspiration comes to him while riding the elevators at the Herbert Irving Pavilion. As the elevators stop at  each floor, the doors open to reveal a different busy clinic dedicated to a specific type of cancer. A seemingly mundane task—riding up and down a hospital elevator—but for Furman, the takeaway is somewhat positive. 

“Cancer is sadly a disease that does not discriminate. On each floor you'll see young people with cancer, older people, all races and all genders. And, some people look healthy, some frail. if you saw me you would not know that I have cancer,” he says. “You realize you’re all part of the same community. I have been a frequent visitor at the Herbert Irving Cancer Center for many years, and I’m not saddened to be there. To the contrary, I am inspired. There’s always someone else going through their own battle, and their courage inspires me to keep battling as well.”  

-Melanie A. Farmer