While most people around the world were ringing in another new year, Rick Miskovsky spent the first month of 2019 dealing with a surprising diagnosis: stage 4 metastatic renal cell carcinoma. Though he immediately had surgery—removal of one of his kidneys—he was told at the time that he would have two years left to live. His kidney cancer had spread to his lungs.

Kidney patient Rick Miskovsky with his oncologist, Dr. Charles Drake

Kidney cancer can grow undetected until late stages of disease and can be difficult to detect during routine physical examinations. Renal cell carcinoma, or RCC, is the most common type of kidney cancer in adults and is a fast-growing cancer, oftentimes spreading to the lungs or neighboring organs.

Thinking back to the time of his diagnosis, Rick says jokingly, “Happy New Year to me!” Rick, his wife, Mary, and their three children were devasted by the news and the prognosis.

Mary took to the Internet to do her own research right away; she refused to accept the dire prognosis. Rather than typing the words “kidney cancer” and “statistic” into the search bar, she instead looked for “kidney cancer” and “survivors”. This web search led her to the kidney cancer support group, KCCure, a group devoted to providing hope and resources to patients and their families and friends.

Through this network, the Miskovskys, who reside in Long Island, NY, learned about Dr. Charles Drake and the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. By spring of 2019, they were in Dr. Drake’s office finally receiving what they wanted to hear and knew in their hearts –that there was hope for Rick.

“The minute we met Dr. Drake, I looked over at Rick, and I said to him, this doctor is going to save your life,” says Mary. “Right away, Dr. Drake had options for us. We walked away from that appointment feeling hopeful, and no longer devastated.”

Dr. Drake is a leading physician-scientist whose expertise is in understanding and fighting advanced-stage cancers with the immune system. At Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, he is professor of medicine and of urology and also co-directs the HICCC’s Cancer Immunotherapy Program. Last spring, he enrolled Rick in an immunotherapy clinical trial, and by December of 2019, Rick’s cancer was in “complete response”, meaning that there was no evidence of disease on his CT scans.  

“Joining that KCCure support group pointed us to our life line,” says Mary. “The last thing any wife wants to tell her children is that their father has cancer and not much time to live. Being in this clinical trial has given us hope; not just for Rick, but for all of us.”

Rick, fortunately, is responding well to the immunotherapy regimen but has experienced a few downsides from the drug. He has developed rheumatoid arthritis, has joint pains, and suffers from fatigue; he is being treated for these conditions in conjunction with his cancer. Immunotherapy may result in the immune system attacking healthy cells, which can cause some of these common side effects.

“Since immunotherapy in effect kicks parts of the immune system into overdrive, some patients can experience side effects like joint pain and arthritis,” says Dr. Drake. “Here at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia, we’ve developed a special clinic dedicated to managing those symptoms so that we can keep patients on this potentially lifesaving treatment without sacrificing their quality of life.”

Recently retired from The U.S. Postal Service, Rick, 60,  worked as a mailman for 32 years. He spends his days with family, including Roxy, the family boxer, and has turned some attention to remodeling their home. This August, Rick and his wife will be celebrating 30 years of marriage. She has been his consistent support and advocate through this all and oftentimes speaks for Rick, who is a man of few words and the introvert of the pair.

“What we learned the most through this is that it is so important to get a second opinion or even a third opinion,” says Mary. “Dr. Drake and Rick’s care team have made us feel so comfortable from the very beginning. Dr. Drake eliminates our fear, and he is so dedicated to his patients. He gave us our hope back, and he gave our kids their dad back.”

-Melanie A. Farmer