Fighting for their future: One couple’s refusal to let lung cancer call the shots

(BPT) – In 2002, Xin Z. and Zhigang W. moved to the United States from China to pursue new academic opportunities. Throughout the next decade, they lived in several different states before settling in Michigan.

They were happy, but their world turned upside down when Xin was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.

The last thing they expected was to be dealt this devastating diagnosis. But, when life threw them an unexpected obstacle, they refused to retreat.

Instead of giving up, Xin and Zhigang fought to find the right tools and determine a treatment plan with their doctors to manage Xin’s prognosis. Seven years later, they are a testament to the power of self-advocacy and the potential of an innovative precision medicine tool that helped guide Xin’s cancer care – comprehensive genomic profiling (CGP).

Taking control of Xin’s cancer journey

In 2013, Xin started to experience pain in her chest and shoulders, along with a persistent cough. Once it was clear the symptoms were there to stay, she saw her primary care doctor, who ordered a chest x-ray. The scans showed a small nodule on her right lung. The doctor incorrectly identified it as an after effect of pneumonia and prescribed her antibiotics.

Fast forward to 2015, when the chronic cough and pains in Xin’s chest returned stronger than ever. Her doctor performed a CT scan and found a mass in the upper lobe of Xin’s right lung, exactly where the nodule had presented itself two years earlier.

“She was so strong and healthy,” Zhigang said of his wife. “We truly thought we had nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, we ignored the early signs until it was too late.”

Further examination revealed that Xin had Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), which eventually metastasized to her hip and brain.

“It was more than difficult to cope with Xin’s diagnosis at first,” Zhigang said. “It was something we really had to adjust to, both physically and mentally.”

Initial treatments to try controlling Xin’s growing cancer failed, including a debilitating hip replacement surgery to remove the cancerous bone and months of radiation to her leg and brain.

“We knew we needed to do something, but we didn’t know where to look or what route to take,” Zhigang said. “At this point, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands – I needed to drive this vehicle, I needed to be in control.”

Zhigang relentlessly searched for alternative treatment approaches for his wife, ultimately leading them to CGP.

Comprehensive genomic profiling utilizes next generation sequencing (NGS) to identify gene mutations in a tumor that may drive cancer growth. This can oftentimes help with a personalized approach to therapy when targetable mutations are in the patient’s tumor.

Xin’s genomic sequencing test revealed a RET fusion, but Xin’s oncologist said there were no targeted therapies available at the time for this mutation.

Undeterred, Zhigang continued his personal research.

This proved worthwhile when the couple received information about a clinical trial for an investigational RET-targeted inhibitor. Xin became the first patient with NSCLC to be enrolled in the trial.

What Xin learned along the way

Xin remains in the clinical trial today, and her lung cancer has shown no further progression.

She encourages all partners, family members and caregivers to support their loved ones battling cancer, as Zhigang continues to do for her.

“It was so important for me to take some of the burden off of her,” Zhigang said.

Xin knows working together as a team is critical in handling a cancer diagnosis. “I’m so thankful and appreciative of my husband’s support,” Xin emphasized.

Xin and Zhigang often think about how many people may be misdiagnosed like Xin was. Zhigang emphasized that many of these cancer patients and health care providers may not know about genomic testing.

“Five years ago, many oncologists did not see the opportunity of genomic testing,” Zhigang said. “Even today, some oncologists we have encountered still do not have a deep understanding of NGS.”

While he knows no test or treatment is a magic bullet, and they don’t always work the same for every patient, Zhigang is thankful for the path that Xin’s testing put them on. Through his and Xin’s experience, he hopes other patients and caregivers are inspired to advocate for themselves through research, asking questions and most importantly, never giving up.