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Inventive drug therapy brings cancer patient back from the brink

“I thought: I’d love to be able to see my daughter graduate and get married, but if this is what the good lord has planned for me, it would be his will.”
Rocky earned the nickname “Angel of Mercy” after helping care for several friends battling cancer. Then doctors diagnosed him with stage 4 kidney cancer, and gave Rocky months to live.

Rocky’s friends and family call him the “Angel of Mercy.”

It’s a nickname he earned after caring for several close friends battling cancer—hosting bedside vigils, running errands and helping out around their homes—anything he could do to ease their burdens.

But cancer has no conscience, and in 2010 Rocky found blood in his urine. Believing that a recent fall was to blame, Rocky visited Lawrence Mulhern, MD, a primary care physician at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. Mulhern referred Rocky to Urologist Kyle Anderson, MD.

Anderson ran Rocky through a battery of tests and scans—and found a kidney tumor nearly as large as the organ itself attached to Rocky’s left kidney. Rocky’s care providers diagnosed him with stage four kidney cancer, a disease with a poor prognosis. He was given just months to live.

“The doctor said, ‘There no way to sugarcoat this: You have cancer,’” Rocky recalled. “I had just gone through four and a half years of cancer with my best friends, and now the Angel of Mercy got whacked.”

One Day of Sadness

Rocky, a retired beer truck driver and former athlete, gave himself one day after the diagnosis to process the news and feel sad.

“My emotions were so mixed, because I had seen the agony and the suffering and the hurt of other families hit with this vicious disease,” Rocky said. “Every day is a beautiful day. I thought: I’d love to be able to see my daughter graduate and get married, but if this is what the good lord has planned for me, it would be his will.”

Still, he refused to let cancer keep his spirits down.

“Mentally, you fight your own demons, as far as depression and stuff like that,” Rocky said, recalling his own struggle. “My biggest thing was staying positive and not projecting an image that would take other people down. I didn’t want to be surrounded by pity; I wanted to be surrounded by positive people.”

Anderson and Medical Oncologist Aren Dudek, MD, suspected Rocky’s kidney cancer had spread to a cluster of nearby lymph nodes, and started Rocky on a three-month regimen of Sunitinib. The targeted therapy drug blocks the enzymes that cause blood vessel growth, which in turn prevents tumor growth by depriving them of blood.

Less harmful than traditional chemotherapy, the drug is commonly used for cancers that have metastasized to other organs, Anderson said. Rocky was an unusual candidate for the treatment, Anderson added, because his cancer hadn’t metastasized to other organs. But kidney cancer is also resistant to traditional chemo, so Anderson decided to proceed with the treatment plan.

Rocky’s response to the drug was nothing short of incredible; at the end of the three-month span, the 9-centimeter kidney tumor was essentially dead, as were the tumors in the surrounding lymph nodes. The drug therapy also caused the kidney tumor to recede away from a significant vein in the kidney, which would make any follow-up surgery less complicated.

Learn more about University of Minnesota Health Cancer Care services.

The Other Shoe Drops

After reviewing the good news, Rocky and his care team decided to take the next step.
On May 21, 2010, the team removed Rocky’s tumor, lymph nodes and left kidney. After a month and a half of rest, Rocky was back on his feet—and scooting around town on his motorcycle.

But then the other shoe dropped. During a routine kidney stone removal in August 2011, Anderson discovered a small cancer in Rocky’s bladder. This time, however, the tumor was small and could be removed quickly without a lengthy treatment regimen. Rocky went into surgery once more, and came out cancer free.

In the years since Rocky’s treatment, using Sunitinib to fight kidney cancer has become more common, Anderson noted. But Rocky’s results still stand out, he added.

“That’s a really good outcome for that type of cancer,” Anderson said.

This fall, Rocky’s daughter graduated from high school and began college classes. He chats with her frequently, and thanks his doctors every time he sees them. The University of Minnesota Health care team streamlined his appointments, treatments and medications, making it easy for his family to manage all the details of cancer care, Rocky said.

“My wife was the strongest thing,” Rocky said. “The first thing she said [after the diagnosis] was: ‘This is just another bump in the road. We’ll get through it; we’ve gotten through everything else together.’”

“She was right.”