Chris Naoum no longer has any evidence of cancer, thanks to personalized – and personal -- care

News | 5 months ago

Going from Stage IV Lung Cancer to Clean Scans

Chris Naoum no longer has any evidence of cancer, thanks to personalized – and personal – care.


Things got personal the first time Chris and Amy Naoum met with Kathryn Mileham, MD, Chief of Thoracic Medical Oncology at Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute in 2016. She wanted to hear about their children, their hobbies, their goals. Chris had stage IV lung cancer that had spread throughout his body, which is incurable. He had recently recovered from surgery for a lesion in his brain, and he was ready to begin treatment for lung cancer with Dr. Mileham. Before they talked about his cancer, however, they got to know each other.

“Dr. Mileham told us, ‘So we're going to be very close. We are going to see each other every three weeks forever,’” Amy remembers. “And I said, ‘Forever's long. What do you mean forever?’ And she said, ‘Yes, every three weeks we are going to see each other. We're going to become very close, and we'll always be touching base with each other.’"

Chris and Amy gained immediate trust in Dr. Mileham, touched by her investment in their lives.

“From that point on, I let her take the wheel and steer,” Chris says. “She’s the captain of the ship in terms of my health. I’m informed, of course, but I follow her lead.”

Things didn’t turn out how Dr. Mileham predicted, however. Something very unexpected occurred: Chris’s cancer treatments were so effective that his scans no longer reveal any cancer at all. Now, four years later, Chris and Amy only see Dr. Mileham every four months to make sure those scans continue to stay clear. Even so, Dr. Mileham was right about the big picture: The three of them became very close.

About Treatment

Just like Dr. Mileham’s approach to care, cancer treatment plans at Levine Cancer Institute are personal. Among them, there’s traditional chemotherapy, which kills dividing cells to kill the cancer. There are targeted therapies, which fight specific mutations in tumors. There’s also immunotherapy, which teaches the body’s immune system to recognize cancer cells and to attack them. Radiation and surgery are also used. Oncologists evaluate a tumor to match it with the most effective treatment plan, which may include one or several of these approaches, sometimes together and sometimes one after the other.

By 2017, Chris had undergone radiation, surgery and chemotherapy. A year after they first met, Dr. Mileham shared good news with him and Amy: A new immunotherapy had just been approved by the FDA that she felt would be a good match for Chris.

“Our goal is to ensure that we personalize every person's treatment plan to fit what actually is driving the cancer,” Dr. Mileham says. ”We use all of the information we have to design a treatment plan specific to the patient and the tumor that they are managing.”

For Chris, this meant receiving immunotherapy every three weeks for two years. At first, he experienced side effects from the treatment, including fever, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes. Although they were unpleasant, Dr. Mileham reassured Chris that the side effects were signs that his treatment was on the right track. The track was more than right, they’d soon learn; it was optimal.

“Chris finished that immunotherapy over two years ago, and I can say with confidence that his most recent CT scan continued to demonstrate no evidence of cancer, four years since he started that immunotherapy,” Dr. Mileham says.

Treating with Cutting-edge Therapies – and Kindness

Levine Cancer Institute doesn’t just treat with emerging therapies, but it plays a crucial role in advancing new cancer therapies, too. It offers clinical trials that offer patients therapies that have shown to be both beneficial and safe. It offers development trials of treatments that have shown great promise and are ready for use in patients. And it collects samples from patients that help scientists gather more information that can lead to future therapies.

“It's such a treat to be a part of Levine Cancer Institute at a time when therapies are expanding and our understanding of cancer is exploding,” says Dr. Mileham. “This isn't just happening in lung cancer. We learn from other cancer types to see how else we can advance the treatment and the support for all of our patients with cancer.”

To Chris, being able to access a new cancer treatment was just part of the care he’s grateful for. His treatments went beyond the immunotherapy he received in an IV.

“The emotional therapy of having been at Levine Cancer Institute is equal to, if not more important, any of the therapies. The experiences that I had along the way at Levine Cancer Institute supported me in a positive way and made me feel like there is a tomorrow,” Chris says. “And that comes from everybody, starting with the lady who worked at the parking deck. The experience from door-to-door was consistently kind and generous.”

The support of Levine Cancer Institute goes beyond patients and extends to their families. Caregivers play a crucial role in treatment, and the care team makes sure they feel like a valued team member, too. Amy brought a three-ring binder to each of their appointments with Dr. Mileham, and she said that the three of them worked together to organize their information in her binder. While it seems like a small act of kindness, it showed Amy that Dr. Mileham valued what she valued.

“Dr. Mileham is a sunshine,” Amy says. “She’s definitely a go-getter, and we just fit. She knows how to listen and just lets you go through what you need to go through.”

Maintaining Hope and Health Through Cancer

Chris’s support system extended beyond his family. Chris found that Levine Cancer Institute became an extension of his support system. “I kind of smile when I even see an Atrium Health van going by. I want to wave! The guy driving doesn't know who I am, but that's how much I feel a part of it. Really. Everyone there has a genuine smile day to day, time after time. These guys are heroes. Everyday heroes.”

Perhaps no one at Atrium Health was more invested in his outcome than Dr. Mileham, however, who became an admirer of Chris and Amy’s strength, persistence and positivity.

“As oncologists, we want to give you life, so we want you to continue to have one for yourself,” Dr. Mileham says. “In Chris's case, because of his determination, because of his charisma, because of his drive for life, he continued to persevere through challenges from surgery, difficulties with cancer, and side effects from chemotherapy. And then lo and behold, a novel and effective treatment became approved, which gave him opportunity. That’s the same message that everyone should receive: If you can stay healthy for as long as possible, then there may be additional opportunities. Take a chance on a novel treatment.”

Learn more about lung cancer care at Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute.