Dr. Michael Weitz didn’t know if he would be able to celebrate his 50th birthday.
At 49 years old, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and given months to live.
“I never dreamed I would have lung cancer,” said Weitz, a Woodland Hills resident who has served as the associate director of the Emergency Department at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica since 1994.
Despite being a doctor, Weitz, like a lot of people, associated lung cancer with smokers. And he had never smoked.
In an effort to help educate the public, raise awareness and spread hope, Weitz shared his story ahead of the Lung Cancer Foundation of America’s seventh annual “Day at the Races” July 24 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
“I try to give people hope back,” he said.
In 2006, Weitz realized something was wrong when he started getting chest discomfort every time he swallowed cold liquids.
He immediately received tests and x-rays, followed by a cat scan and a bronchoscopy, which is what determined his diagnosis. Weitz had stage IIIB non-small cell lung cancer and was told he had three to six months to live.
“It was very much a surprise,” Weitz said. “Once you get that diagnosis, your world gets turned upside down in the blink of an eye.”
Weitz soon underwent chemotherapy, followed by radiation. After several months of treatments, he had surgery to remove his entire left lung.
“Initially, it was pretty rough,” Weitz said about the recovery period.
He experienced trouble breathing, walking and shortness of breath, which forced him to be put on oxygen.
“Little by little I was able to walk outside the house. Fifty yards became 100, 100 yards became 200,” Dr. Weitz said. “I continued to improve.”
He continued treatment and received targeted therapy drugs that would work for a while, but eventually his body developed a resistance to them.
Doctors thought that Weitz might have a mutation called the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR). And initially, Weitz responded to the testing and was given the drug Tarceva, which he took for a little over a year.
Although Weitz’s condition was stable after treatment, the cancer eventually spread to his bones and his brain. Weitz assumed he might have one or two metastatic lesions, but doctors discovered he had too many metastatic lesions to even count.
“It was devastating,” he said.
Now resistant to Tarceva, Weitz went on another clinical trial with a c-met inhibitor drug called Arqule 197 to help overcome this resistance. It only worked for a year.
Weitz was running out of options around the time his mother saw a news report about a lung cancer patient who had the rare anaplastic lymphoma kinase mutation. The patient was given a new drug developed for ALK mutation and, within weeks, saw a significant reduction in his tumors.
After sharing the news story with his oncologist, Weitz’s archived lung cancer tissue was tested.
“At that time, there was only one center in the country doing the testing and that was Massachusetts General Hospital,” he explained. “They were very understaffed and not supported in terms of even being able to generate a report.”
Four weeks later, Weitz learned he was, indeed, ALK positive.
“That opened up the world of targeted therapy and personalized medicine,” he said.
He went on a drug called crizotinib. The drug was effective throughout most of his body except his brain. He didn’t meet resistance until four and a half years later.
Today, Weitz takes alectinib, which he explained crosses the blood-brain barrier very well. The treatment eliminated his brain mets and, so far, he has not met resistance. He has been on the drug for two years.
“There is no active disease,” said Weitz, who continues to get scans of his brain, chest and full body every nine weeks.
“These drugs are very well-tolerated, where standard chemotherapy is an equal opportunity destroyer,” he added. “Not only does it kill cancer cells, it kills normal cells so that your white-blood cell count plummets and your immune system becomes compromised, and your red-blood cells plummet and you become anemic. The beauty of these targeted therapies is they only target the abnormal cancer cells, not your other cells, so your immune system stays relatively intact and your blood counts are relatively normal.”
An advocate of targeted therapy drugs and clinical trials, Weitz encouraged patients to embrace clinical trials.
“This age of targeted therapies and personalized medicine is really remarkable,” Weitz said. “There are many survivors out there like me that have survived. Take comfort in that and don’t be afraid of clinical trials. Without clinical trials, there is no drug discovery.”
Weitz has worked with the Lung Cancer Foundation of America for nine years. Starting as an advocate, he now serves on the organization’s Scientific Advisory Board. He often speaks at conferences and other events to share his story.
“My perspective has completely changed,” said Weitz, who isn’t looking for a cure, but is looking to live his life and give people hope.
“I will never be cured. I don’t have that expectation,” he added. “But the hope that I tell everyone in the lung cancer community is successfully managing the disease, just like I’ve done for the last 10 years.”
Lung cancer is the nation’s top cancer killer, yet it ranks near the bottom in research funding.
To raise awareness of lung cancer and funds for research, the Lung Cancer Foundation of America is holding its seventh annual “Day at the Races” July 24 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. The event is one of the foundation’s annual fundraisers, bringing together advocates, survivors and supporters at the Del Mar Racetrack. Proceeds benefit lung cancer research.
“Day at the Races” will take place from noon to 6:30 p.m. in the Il Palio Restaurant at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. Races begin at 2 p.m.
Tickets cost $150 and include entry into the private Turf Club, a tour of the paddock area and a private betting window. The event will also feature a special “Breath of Life” race to raise awareness about lung cancer and support lung cancer research, as well as a silent auction and raffle drawing.
For information or to inquire about tickets or sponsorships, contact Jim Baranski at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more about the Lung Cancer Foundation of America or to buy tickets for the event, visit www.lcfamerica.org.