Andy Lindsay, a 61-year-old from Massachusetts, achieved his goal of climbing the Mera Peak in Nepal in October 2017. Lindsay is an avid and experienced climber who has had Stage IV lung cancer for three years. He is benefiting from a clinical trial of targeted therapy with a drug called EGF816.
While every year, more people die from lung cancer than from breast, colon and prostate cancers combined, targeted therapies like the one Lindsay is receiving can sometimes help cancer patients have more successful remissions and more active lifestyles, The New York Times reports. One of Lindsay’s doctors, Dr. Tomas Neilan, is the director of the cardio-oncology program at Massachusetts General Hospital. He told The Times the therapies are “taking Stage IV cancer and turning it into a chronic disease no different than high blood pressure.”
“To live one year was statistically unlikely, and two years looked like a miracle,” says Lindsay of his health. He announced his plans for the journey on his Caring Bridge page (an online health journaling community), along with his related fundraiser for lung cancer research, in September. Lindsay and his wife, who is an outdoors enthusiast as well and a nurse, spent three weeks climbing to Mera Peak with eight other climbers and a couple of guides.
At its altitude of over 21,000 feet, Mera Peak air pressure is reduced to 70 percent lower than sea level. At these heights, climbers of all levels of experience are at risk for experiencing health problems including altitude sickness, pulmonary edema and cerebral edema. While Lindsay had climbed and trekked in the Northeast of the U.S. and in Nepal on previous occasions, taking this journey with lung cancer was unprecedented, and no data on previous similar undertakings could be found. Neilan described his success as “remarkable.”
Lindsay has a type of non-small-cell lung cancer that is characterized by a mutation in a gene called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), which is involved in cell growth. He took a first-generation oral EFGR inhibitor in 2014 to keep the cancer cells from growing. He had a positive response to this course of care but his remission ended within a year. A biopsy showed the cancer had become resistance to the drug. Next, in 2016, he enrolled in his current trial, of a drug called EGF816 – a third-generation EFGR inhibitor that was able to target the resistance his cancer had developed. “Upon oral administration, EGF816 covalently binds to and inhibits the activity of mutant forms of EGFR,” the National Cancer Institute explains.
Lindsay reports feeling better and breathing easier days after the trial began. So, he began to resume his beloved outdoor activities like biking in the months that followed. He also enjoyed traveling and playing in his band. Before the trek in Nepal, two “small, slow-growing” nodules were detected in his lungs. But he was given the OK from his doctors, who prepped him to be aware of telltale signs of climbing-related health problems such as headaches and coughing up blood. Veteran guides led the trip up Mera Peak, including an Everest expert and E.M.T who is also head of the Parks Canada rescue service. A team physician also participated in the climb.
While Lindsay stayed at the rear of the hike for much of the trip, taking frequent rests, he picked up speed at the higher altitudes and joined the front of the pack.
Massachusetts General Medical Oncologist Dr. Zofia Piotrowska concentrates on treating the type of cancer Lindsay has. She supported his climb and celebrated his success; “This is an example of something that none of us ever thought would be possible a few years ago,” she says.