Michael McCarty, this year’s patient speaker at the annual Shine a Light on Lung Cancer event, credits his survival to a single, desperate message he sent from a hospital bed to transfer his cancer care to St. Joe’s.
Over the course of his six-year lung cancer journey, Michael McCarty has been to the brink of death and back. And though he accepts the sober truth that time is limited, he tells people, “it’s never too late.”
Michael was diagnosed in September 2012 with non-small cell lung cancer – a type of cancer that occurs mainly in current or former smokers. As Michael would soon learn, it’s also the most common type of lung cancer seen in non-smokers like him.
He was just 43 years old. His children were 13, 11, and 7. He was given 18 months to live.
Michael initially sought treatment at MD Anderson in Houston, Texas, one of the premier comprehensive cancer centers in the country. As doctors felt surgery was too risky, they put Michael on proton beam therapy in conjunction with chemotherapy.
After spending two months receiving 13 rounds of chemo and 36 doses of proton therapy, Michael received the hopeful news in March 2013 that he was NED – “no evidence of disease.”
Renewed in spirit, Michael returned to his job in Midland as an attorney and also became involved in national advocacy work.
During a lobbying stint with Lung Cancer Alliance in Washington, D.C., Michael befriended Lara Blair, who was a lung cancer survivor herself, and was working at St. Joe’s as a lung nurse navigator. Inspired by his story, Lara invited Michael to speak at the 2014 St. Joe’s “Shine a Light on Lung Cancer” event, where he met Dr. Philip Stella, medical director of St. Joe’s oncology program, and other physicians. He was impressed by the conversations he heard.
“It was just the way those doctors were speaking about lung cancer. It wasn’t brand new stuff to me, but it was exciting to hear that there was a group of doctors thinking about the standard of care for lung cancer,” Michael said.
Little did he know that he’d soon experience this care for himself.
A year later, Michael’s cancer had progressed. A biopsy revealed Michael was ALK positive. The genetic mutation occurs in roughly 4 percent of non-small cell lung cancer patients, and was causing Michael’s lung cells to grow abnormally and behave as cancer cells, spreading to his brain. Michael was put on a targeted therapy medication, which helped for a while. But when it stopped working, he became very ill and was eventually hospitalized in Midland with pulmonary edema.
Certain his time was limited, Michael wanted to transfer his care somewhere he could trust the doctors to think outside of the box – he knew it had to be St. Joe’s. He had no contacts there except for Lara Blair, and in a moment of desperation, his wife reached out to her on Facebook.
Lara, who was on her way into her own surgery, responded quickly.
“She made one call, and the rest is history,” Michael said.
Lara connected Michael with Dr. Vita McCabe, director of St. Joe’s lung care program, and oncologist Dr. Tareq Al Baghdadi, who transferred Michael to the ICU at St. Joe’s Ann Arbor in a matter of a day.
Dr. Al Baghdadi decided to put Michael on another targeted therapy drug called ceritinib. But because Michael was on a ventilator and unable to swallow, Dr. Al Baghdadi decided on the unconventional approach of administering the drug through his feeding tube.
“It had a Lazarus effect. It literally brought me back,” Michael said.
Michael recovered, and under Dr. Al Baghdadi’s care, he was able to avoid whole-brain radiation, and instead manage his cancer with various targeted therapy drugs. He has been on the oral drug alectinib for the last 30 months with no progression of cancer.
“I accept the fact that I have a terminal cancer, but I have great hope that I can live this disease out like a chronic disease,” Michael said, touting his team’s continuous willingness to explore new options.
In marking his six-year “cancer-versary,” Michael returned as a patient speaker at the Nov. 7 Shine a Light on Lung Cancer event, this time with a new perspective.
Living with cancer has made Michael more in tune with his body, and more aware of his limitations, but not in a discouraging way. He feels it has redefined him and made him a much more empathetic person in the workplace and at home.
“Hope and acceptance do not have to be mutually exclusive,” he said.
Michael hopes his message at the event will be empowering to others facing their own cancer battles.
“You have to be willing to fight, and to try, and have the ability to hand it over. You cannot control this disease, so you’ve got to have hope that something else is going to come along to help you control it,” he added.
“If patients like me are living longer, and our voices are growing louder, that should bring hope to patients.”