A mesothelioma diagnosis is often thought to be a death sentence. While the mortality rate from mesothelioma is still depressingly high, a few long-term survivors give hope that better treatments and maybe even a cure for mesothelioma are around the corner. Mavis Nye is one of these rare survivors.
Mavis Nye was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2009, when she was in her late 60s. When she first came in for testing, the fluid pressing on her lungs took her breath away and made it hard for her to walk more than a few feet at a time. Doctors drained seven liters of fluid (almost two gallons) from her lungs. She was so ill when she was first diagnosed, that her doctors gave her just a few months to live.
Mavis Nye doesn’t take bad news lying down. A native of the county of Kent, England, south of London, she opted for aggressive chemotherapy treatment despite her poor prognosis.
This was the first success for Mavis Nye. She signed up for any drug trial she could. Nothing worked. Eventually, chemotherapy stopped working too. By then, Mavis had made it four years beyond her terminal mesothelioma diagnosis, and that was a victory in itself.
At the end of her options, she squeaked into a small clinical trial for the mesothelioma immunotherapy drug Keytruda. For two years, she received a drug infusion every two weeks.
The other two participants in the Keytruda trial succumbed to mesothelioma. Mavis Nye survived – and thrived. After just a few treatments, her tumors started to shrink. At the end of the mesothelioma clinical trial, she was in full remission. That’s a condition that few mesothelioma patients are ever lucky enough to achieve. After a year without treatment, her mesothelioma has not come back. At age 76, Mavis Nye has her life back.
Mavis Nye: Remission After Mesothelioma Immunotherapy
The chief executive of the British Lung Foundation has recognized Mavis Nye as one of only a few people to be in remission from mesothelioma. She went into remission after chemotherapy no longer worked to keep her cancer from progressing and she was able to try mesothelioma immunotherapy.
Chemotherapy drugs work by directly attacking and killing cancer cells. For some types of cancer, chemotherapy can be quite effective at stopping malignant growths. Mesothelioma chemotherapy slows the spread or metastasis of the cancer, thus giving patients longer survival times. Traditional chemotherapy hasn’t been able to shrink mesothelioma tumors, however.
Immunotherapy drugs work indirectly. Rather than attacking the cancer cells head on, they target very specific actions and reactions of your immune system, at the cellular level. Mesothelioma immunotherapy drugs are like tiny keys that lock the doors that cancer uses to grow and spread. These are the pathways that allow malignant cells to avoid the normal rules that govern other cells in our bodies and frees them from the immune response that would otherwise eradicate them.
Keytruda is the brand name for the mesothelioma immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab. It is one of the class of immunotherapy drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors. It blocks the PD-L1 pathway, which is a back door that cancer cells use to avoid programmed death, which is a natural part of the life cycle of all cells. With that pathway blocked, your immune system’s T cells suddenly recognize the cancer cells as harmful invaders and start killing them. The killing ability of these T cells is stronger and more targeted than any chemotherapy drug.
Keytruda is one of the early immunotherapy success stories. It has shown positive results for several types of cancers, including mesothelioma.
There is a caveat with mesothelioma immunotherapy, however. Remember the other two patients in the Keytruda drug trial with Mavis Nye who didn’t survive? Each immunotherapy drug focuses on one of the ways that cancer hides from your immune system. Every tumor is different. Matching the right immunotherapy treatment for a particular patient’s tumor is the next challenge in mesothelioma treatment.
Mavis Nye was lucky: her mesothelioma tumor was very responsive to treatment with Keytruda. The fact that this type of immunotherapy works for some mesothelioma patients points scientists in the right direction to develop more and better mesothelioma immunotherapy drugs and better diagnostic tools.
How Did Mavis Nye Get Mesothelioma?
Mavis Nye has been married to her husband, Ray, for over 50 years. They met when they were both teenagers. He was working as an apprentice at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham, where he later got a job.
After Mavis and Ray married, he would come home covered in dust from the shipyard. She shook out his work clothes and washed them. She brushed the dust from his hair.
No one ever told Ray Nye that the dust at the shipyard contained dangerous asbestos fibers. No one ever suggested that he or the other workers should wear protective clothing. Ray was lucky not to develop mesothelioma. He feels terrible that he brought home the toxic mineral that made his wife sick. If he had known the risks, surely, he would have taken precautions.
Mavis Nye is not alone. There have been numerous cases where women developed mesothelioma because of asbestos exposure from their husbands’ work clothes.
Mavis Nye: Birth of a #Mesowarrior
After her mesothelioma diagnosis, Mavis Nye didn’t just fight hard for her own survival. Even while she was still in treatment, she started working to raise mesothelioma awareness.
Today Mavis Nye spends much of her time speaking about the dangers of asbestos exposure. She is particularly concerned about the risks to children: around 80 percent of the school buildings in Great Britain contain asbestos.
Although corporations and public health officials have known about the dangers of asbestos exposure for 100 years, the death toll from mesothelioma continues to rise. Mavis Nye wants to turn that around. She speaks to physicians, researchers, members of the British Parliament and many others.
Mavis Nye has a name for herself (and a hashtag): #mesowarrior. She plans to fight mesothelioma with every breath she takes.
The Mavis Nye Foundation: Living and Giving Back
Mavis Nye does more than public education. She has joined and formed mesothelioma patient support groups. She is a patient representative for Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). She and Ray started the Mavis Nye Foundation to help other mesothelioma patients receive the kind of life-extending treatment she did.
While her story is inspiring, it’s important to remember that there still is no known cure for mesothelioma. Mavis Nye lives with the knowledge that her cancer could come back at any time. Even more reason for this indomitable spirit to spend every day living life to the fullest and giving her all to other mesothelioma patients.