When a well-known journalist in Dallas learned he had stage 4 kidney cancer, he was told he had three, possibly four, years to live.
One year, later, the tumor threatening his life is gone and it’s thanks to a clinical trial at UT Southwestern.
Robert Wilonsky will tell you there’s nothing special about him. He’ll tell you he’s just a Dallas City Hall reporter with a passion for writing about the city in which he was born and raised.
Wilonsky, however, beat a kind of cancer that doctors say typically claims lives in fewer than two years.
“I got diagnosed the day before my son’s 14th birthday. Imagine being told that you lived your whole life thinking you’re, fine to an extent, and that you have a few years to live. He told me, at that point, three to four years to live. I just thought I just need to get my kid Harry through high school. I just want to see him start college,” Wilonsky said.
The grim diagnosis led him the Kidney Cancer Program at UT Southwestern Medical Center, where Dr. Hans Hammers is an associate professor of internal medicine in the division of hematology-oncology.
Dr. Hammers is also one of the nation’s leading medical oncologists who focuses primarily on treating kidney cancer.
“Patients come to me. They’re devastated. They’re often like Robert, ripped out of normal life. They were just diagnosed,” Hammers said.
Scans showed the tumor in one of Wilonsky’s kidneys was too big for surgery. Hammers compared the size of the tumor to the size of a small child’s head.
The cancer had spread to the liver.
“Classic chemotherapy that we use in lung cancer, breast cancer, you-name-it cancer, doesn’t work in kidney cancer. It’s very resistant,” Hammers said.
However, Hammers had already started a clinical immunotherapy trial that could potentially kill or shrink Wilonsky’s tumors to an operable size.
It’s called the RADVAX and is a multi-institution, single-arm phase II study that assesses the combination of radiation with two drugs called nivolumab and ipilimumab in patients with metastatic clear-cell renal cell carcinoma.
Wilonsky would become only the 10th person to join the trial.
“I hadn’t cried the whole time, but at that moment I was like, ‘Oh, I have cancer. This is going to suck,'” Wilonsky said.
The trial lasted several months and included rounds of stereotactic radiation, or SABR, a focused radiation treatment where beams are shot from different angles converging on the tumor and administering lethal doses of radiation.
The radiation was followed by infusions of the powerful drug combination that ramps up the body’s own immune system to attack what’s left of the tumors after radiation.
Wilonsky said some days were harder than others, but he still returned to work every day.
“I mean, I kept thinking, ‘Why am I not in bed? I should stay in bed. Today’s a good day to stay in bed.’ But there was always something to do. There was always some vote at city council, some historic house that was about to be torn down, something I had to go write about.”
While the RADVAX trial worked to shrink his tumors, Wilonsky worked at the office, where he kept his cancer battle a secret until the results of the trial were in.
His liver tumors were gone.
His kidney tumor, now small enough for a surgeon to remove.
“I wrote it for other people. I didn’t write it for me. I wrote it to help people… that there was something significant, medically significant, research taking place in Dallas. The work that UT Southwestern is doing is remarkable. I had such a remarkable reaction to it, so maybe there were other people who would have the same.”
His most recent scans show, Wilonsky is still cancer-free, but he will have to get checked every three months.
In Wilonsky’s words, “you don’t really survive cancer so much as you just try to outrun it.”
“It is the ghost that hovers. You just hope it doesn’t come to claim you. I would rather it hover than tell me it’s time to go.”
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.