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From 'Dead Man Walking' to Dancing Once More: One Man's Cancer Journey
  • Posted July 8, 2020

From 'Dead Man Walking' to Dancing Once More: One Man's Cancer Journey

After spending much of 2016 healing following the deaths of both his partner of 25 years and his mother, Oswald Peterson -- a professional carnival dancer in New York City -- was convinced 2017 would be his year to start again.

But life had other plans. Peterson, now 53, woke up on New Year's Day 2017 feeling awful.

"I could barely get across the floor. I went to urgent care near me and they took an X-ray. They said I had pneumonia or COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]," Peterson explained.

When he wasn't getting any better, Peterson got into a cab from Brooklyn to see his regular doctor in upper Manhattan. "While we were on the ride, the driver asked, 'Are you sure you want to go this far? There are closer hospitals.' That's how sick I looked," he recounted.

Peterson was admitted to Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where they did a lung biopsy and discovered that he had lung cancer.

"It wasn't just cancer, it was a very aggressive, stage 4 lung cancer. It was in my spine. It was in my chest. I had blood clots. I also had fluid in my heart and lungs. After the cancer experience with my mother [he was her caretaker throughout her cancer], I knew I didn't have more than eight to 12 weeks to live," Peterson said.

"I really wasn't in a great place mentally when they diagnosed me. I thought, it's just my turn now. But my friends wanted me to fight. They never left me alone, and told me the best way to honor the dead is to live," he said.

But Peterson was too sick for chemotherapy and radiation. They gave him blood thinner for the blood clots, and drained the fluid from his heart and lungs so he could breathe.

Right around this time, the hospital received approval to give patients a new treatment called immunotherapy.

"The doctors were hopeful that this would be the treatment for me, and it might give me a year or two extra," he said.

Listen to Peterson tell the story of his recovery in his own words:

Immunotherapy a new weapon against cancer

Dr. Bill Cance, chief medical and scientific officer for the American Cancer Society, said, "Immunotherapy basically describes drugs that stimulate the body's immune system to attack the cancer. [When successful], immunotherapy stops the tumor from being able to defend against the immune system."

Cance said researchers have been working on different types of immunotherapy for decades. He said the experts believe that most tumor types could be treated with immunotherapy, but it's painstaking work figuring out how to harness the immune system's power against cancer while leaving healthy cells alone.

There's been success with immunotherapy for a number of cancers, including melanoma skin cancer, kidney cancer and lung cancer, Cance said.

"There's been a lot of progress in immunotherapy, but there's a lot of work left to do. Right now, only about 20% to 40% of those treated respond to immunotherapy," Cance said. He also noted that these treatments are very expensive right now, and the hope is that they'll be more affordable in the future.

Fortunately for Peterson, he was one of those who responded to immunotherapy.

Peterson received two immunotherapy treatments before he left the hospital. Then, his treatments were spaced about every three weeks apart.

"When I left the hospital, I looked like a dead man walking. I had been a model. I was a dancer. People were accustomed to me looking a certain way. But I had lost about 40 pounds. I was having trouble even walking, and I had to walk around with an oxygen tank," Peterson said.

After immunotherapy treatment, he quickly began to feel better. He was able to eat more, and started regaining the lost weight.

Peterson only had one temporary side effect from treatment -- a significant allergic reaction to a face cream that made his face swell and skin peel. But it lasted only a few days, and since then, he's had no other concerns.

New lease on life

Cance said this isn't always the case, however. "Some people are more prone to side effects. In some people, the immune system can attack normal cells. It really varies from patient to patient, but overall immune therapy is reasonably well-tolerated," he explained. Cance also noted that people receiving immunotherapy are monitored closely for side effects so they're caught early.

Peterson's cancer responded to the immunotherapy. He said his doctor won't use the word cured, but she did call him "cancer-free."

He has to continue receiving immunotherapy, probably for the rest of his life. Right now, he gets treatments about every 10 weeks. As time goes on, he may be able to go even longer between treatments.

Peterson is back at work, and he still dances for special occasions and teaches dance sometimes. "At my age, my dance career would have been over anyway. The dance life takes a hard toll on your body. The costumes weigh 200 pounds, and you're dancing in the hot sun." But he's thrilled that he's still healthy enough to do it at all.

For others facing the decision of whether or not to try immunotherapy, Peterson said to learn everything you can about your options. "Immunotherapy gives you another choice, another soldier in the fight. Don't be afraid to try something cutting edge if it seems to be the best treatment for you," he suggested.

"Today, I'm probably in better shape than I was. My new partner and I travel all over. I feel like I can do anything. I can't even begin to express how grateful I am to have received immunotherapy," Peterson said.

It turns out 2017 was Peterson's new beginning after all.

More information

Learn more about cancer immunotherapy from the American Cancer Society.

SOURCES: Oswald Peterson, New York City; William Cance, M.D., chief medical and scientific officer, American Cancer Society
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