Targeted treatments halt spread of advanced non-small cell lung cancer

Lung cancer survivor Ivy Elkins and Jyoti Patel, MD, medical oncologist

Four years ago, Ivy Elkins thought she had only a few months to live. Last summer, she climbed to the top of a waterfall in Iceland.

By the time Ivy Elkins learned she had lung cancer in 2013, it had already spread to her bones and her brain.

"My prognosis seemed dismal,” Elkins said. "Would I reach my 50th birthday? Celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary? Take vacations with my husband and two sons again? I didn’t know the answer to these questions.”

A new, targeted treatment at UChicago Medicine gave her optimism and hope. ”Our understanding of lung cancer genetics has opened new opportunities to personalize therapy for each patient,” said oncologist Jyoti Patel, MD.

"All along, at all the critical junctures, Dr. Patel has absolutely made the best decisions for my health," Elkins said.

A biopsy of tumor cells revealed that Elkins had non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) as a result of a mutation in a gene called EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor). The mutation, which is more common in women and people like Elkins who have never smoked, allows cancer cells to grow quickly.

At the time of Elkins’ diagnosis, the FDA had just approved a targeted treatment that attaches to abnormal EGFR molecules and blocks the cancer-causing signals.

Within a week of taking the medication, Elkins’ condition improved. "The tumor in my lung shrank, all the brain lesions were gone and bone in my cervical spine began to heal." The side effects were minimal and manageable.

Ivy Elkins feeds horses in Iceland
Ivy Elkins during her family's dream trip to Iceland.

But eventually — in Elkins’ case, it was three years later — the targeted drug stops working because another mutation develops in the EGFR gene.

Patel identified the new mutation even before symptoms appeared. Fortunately, there was a new FDA-approved targeted medication for the second mutation, too. Now, a little more than a year after starting this new treatment, the tumor on Elkins’ lung has shrunk in half.

"All along, at all the critical junctures, Dr. Patel has absolutely made the best decisions for my health," Elkins said.

And Elkins makes the best of the turns in her life by giving back. Now an active advocate for lung cancer research, she represents patients at national and international conferences and is involved in the organization LUNGevity. "I plan to be around a long time," she said. "And I plan to make every day count."

Lung Cancer Care

At UChicago Medicine, we offer a wide range of lung cancer care options, including minimally invasive surgery and innovative targeted therapies, as well as clinical trials of promising treatments not widely available.

Learn more about our lung cancer care

Jyoti D. Patel, MD

Jyoti D. Patel, MD, specializes in the treatment of patients with lung cancer and other thoracic cancers. She uses targeted approaches, immunotherapy, and cytotoxic chemotherapy to tailor treatment to each patient with the goal of improving outcomes.

Learn more about Dr. Patel