MERIDEN, Conn. (AP) — Doctors told South Meriden resident Daniel Santomero he had 18 months to live in August 2015 when he was diagnosed with Stage-4 head and neck cancer. Two years later, he has beaten the odds thanks to experimental immunotherapy treatment.
“I went from one foot in the grave to riding 100 miles on a bike,” Santomero said. “It’s a miracle.”
Santomero, 61, grew up in Meriden and graduated from Platt High School. He went on to a career in the time share business, where he traveled the world, including two years living in Australia. It was in Australia where he first felt a lump in his neck. He returned to the United States and was living in Hilton Head, South Carolina when he was diagnosed with Stage-4 metastatic tonsillar cancer. The cancer caused damage to his left vocal cord and had spread to his lymph nodes.
At the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, Santomero was told with radiation and chemotherapy he could live up to 18 months. Without treatment doctors said he would be dead in six months.
Another physician suggested Santomero explore experimental treatment, so he packed up his life and moved back to Meriden, where he underwent five rounds of radiation at Yale-New Haven’s Smilow Cancer Hospital to combat a lesion that had formed on his vertebrae. He then pursued experimental immunotherpay with the drug Opdivo at Eastern Connecticut Hematology & Oncology Associates in Norwich in March 2016.
Immunotherapy offers a promising alternative to chemotherapy for some cancer patients, according to Dr. Pramod K. Srivastava, director of the Carole and Raye Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at UConn Health Center. While chemotherapy attacks cancer cells, it also harms other cells in the body. Immunotherapy utilizes the body’s immune system to combat cancer, Srivastava said. When fighting a disease such as the flu, the body will divide immune cells so that they increase enough to fight an infection. Once the infection is no longer present, the immune cells still active are suppressed.
“It’s a mechanism of shutting down the immune system when it’s not needed,” Srivastava said.
Immunotherapy works by essentially stopping that process so the immune system can continue to fight against longer-term threats such as cancer.
“If you disable the brakes in a car, the car won’t stop. If you can disable the brakes for sometime then it can keep on going longer and hopefully kill the cancer,” Srivastava said. “Basically, it’s a brake on the brakes.”
Like chemotherapy, there are side effects associated with immunotherapy, Srivastava said. Remarkably, Santomero said he has not experienced any.
Immunotherapy clinical trials have been approved for other forms of cancer, Srivastava said, however using it to treat head and neck cancer is still considered experimental.
“These drugs are showing more activity in late-stage patients than any other types of drugs before,” Srivastava said. “To have another option that has the potential to actually cure is a huge benefit.”
Immnotherapy may also have a role to play in preventing cancer. Srivastava’s team is currently working on a clinical trial for women with cervical cancer to create vaccines for the women after treatment using information from their tumors to prevent their cancer from returning.
“Each patient’s cancer is unique, like a fingerprint,” Srivastava said. “It’s a personalized vaccine, it’s not coming off the shelf.”
Santomero continues to receive treatment with Opdivo every two weeks at the Norwich clinic. Regular scans show the treatment has been extremely effective, Santomero said.
“Each time everything has gotten smaller,” he said.
His athletic lifestyle may have contributed to his success in combating cancer, he noted. Santomero has been bicycling since childhood when he delivered newspapers for the Record-Journal and also enjoys roller blading, kayaking and surfing.
He recently participated in the Closer to Free Ride, completing a 100-mile bike ride and fundraising $5,285 for cancer research and treatment for Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center.
“So many people have raised money before this for me,” Santomero said. “I benefited from it and it was a way of being able to give back.”
Santomero’s doctors are no longer estimating a limit on his life expectancy and with a new lease on life, Santomero said he is not going to waste it. As for future plans, Santomero said he hopes to continue to lead the active lifestyle he enjoys.
“God willing, I’m going to do the Closer to Free Ride next September,” Santomero said.
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