Larry Sullivan will never forget the day he learned he had terminal cancer. The retired school psychologist was told that he likely had a short time to live, and his mind reeled with the reality of what he was facing. Today, more than two years later, Larry’s cancer is all but gone.
“Oh, it’s so amazing and unexpected for me,” he says. “It’s been a hard journey but I’m doing really well.”
A team approach to cancer care
Quality cancer care doesn’t come from one doctor; it comes from a team of specialists, each member playing an important role. Like many patients, Larry’s cancer treatment involved multiple specialists from different clinics in the Eugene-Springfield area who collaborate through the Oregon Cancer Alliance.
Diagnosed in fall of 2019, Larry’s treatment began with a procedure called radioembolization, or Y90. It’s a minimally invasive procedure that allowed interventional radiologist Dr. Donald Garbett to inject radiation directly into the tumor in Larry’s liver through tiny tools inserted into the body through the arteries.
“It allows us to go right up to wherever the tumors are and deliver treatment,” explains Dr. Garbett. “By delivering the treatment directly into the tumor, the rest of the body doesn’t experience it like it might with other treatment procedures. We were able to treat Mr. Sullivan’s entire tumor and it immediately started to shrink.”
Larry’s cancer had already spread to his lungs and bones. To treat it, medical oncologist Dr. Benjamin Cho prescribed a combination of immunotherapy drugs, Yervoy and Opdivo, that together boosted his body’s immune system to recognize cancer as foreign and attack it while also uncloaking the cancer cells that use “checkpoints” to hide from detection.
“The Opdivo covers that checkpoint and the Yervoy boosts the immune system for longer periods of time,” says Dr. Cho. “By coupling these two forms of immunotherapy together, we’re more likely to get a response. And in this case, we did. We’re no longer seeing the cancer in Mr. Sullivan’s lungs and bones.”
As members of the Oregon Cancer Alliance, doctors Cho and Garbett, along with Larry’s surgeon Dr. Daniel Cusati and other providers, were able to work together to create the best treatment plan.
“Streamlining this kind of care is really important. It allows us to be on the same page regarding the care we’re providing for the patient, but it also allows them to be evaluated in an expedited way,” says Dr. Cusati.
In addition to scheduling patients’ appointments between clinics, to ensure they are seen by providers in a timely manner, members of the OCA also commit to attending tumor boards, where specialists discuss individual cancer cases, like Larry’s, and collaborate on the appropriate treatment plan for each patient.
Dr. Garbett says, “When Mr. Sullivan was diagnosed, oncology saw him, I saw him, surgery saw him, and we all came up with this treatment individualized for him. He’s had a dramatic, amazing response, and it’s the response we hope to get from every treatment for every patient.”
“In the past, with cancer that’s spread, it would just be the oncologist giving therapy and now we have the interventional radiologist’s help with localized care, we have the surgeon who can take out what’s left of the tumor, we have the radiation therapist who delivered radiation therapy to Larry’s spine when the cancer spread there, which helped him with his pain quite a bit,” says Dr. Cho. “Without all these doctors working together, communicating with each other, he wouldn’t be where he is now.”
Larry says he’s thankful to his medical team for the collaborative and streamlined care he’s received. He says he’s feeling better than he has in a long time and he’s returned to working part time as a school psychologist. Larry continues to enjoy his hobby of restoring boats, and he and his wife have started traveling again. They visited family over the summer and took a road trip to explore several national parks.
“I’m very lucky. I never imagined even six months ago this happening.” Larry says. “It’s been hard at times, but now I can do things again and have some joy in my life. I’m really excited to have more time with my family.”