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

Jyothi Patel and Ivy Elkins

Five years ago, Ivy Elkins was afraid to look too far into the future. That’s when she found out she had lung cancer­ — and that it had already spread to her bones and brain.

The diagnosis rocked her and her family, particularly because she didn’t smoke. And never did.

“It was a total shock to me, my husband, Ben, and my sons, Adam and Jared,” Elkins said. “My prognosis seemed dismal. Would I reach my 50th birthday? Celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary? Take vacations with my husband and be here for our younger son’s bar mitzvah? I didn’t know the answer to these questions.”

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.

As Elkins quickly learned, a cancer diagnosis affects the entire family. And as cancer experts know, support from loved ones combined with leading-edge research, treatment and care strengthens a patient’s ability to successfully fight cancer.

At the time of her diagnosis, the Food and Drug Administration had just approved a new therapy that could target the cancer. The targeted treatment attaches to abnormal EGFR molecules and blocks the cancer-causing signals.

It gave Elkins and her family the hope they needed. 

”Our understanding of lung cancer genetics has opened new opportunities to personalize therapy for each patient,” said Jyoti Patel, MD, director of thoracic oncology at the University of Chicago Medicine. An active researcher, Patel has served as principal investigator of multiple clinical trials and focuses on developing novel therapeutics and personalized treatments for lung cancer.

Cancer can’t compete with the rest of my life. Yes, I have cancer, but it doesn’t have me.

Within a week of taking the medication, Elkins saw her condition improve. The side effects were minimal and manageable. 

"The tumor in my lung shrank, all the brain lesions were gone and bone in my cervical spine began to heal," Elkins said.

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

But Patel identified the new mutation even before symptoms appeared. Fortunately, there was a new FDA-approved targeted medication for the second mutation, too. Now, two years 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.  “She also got to know me and what was going on in my life. She recognized that, when a patient has cancer, a whole family is impacted.”

Elkins, now 52, recently marked 22 years of marriage to Ben. The family has celebrated their second bar mitzvah.  

Lung cancer survivor Ivy Elkins feeds horses on a trip to Iceland
Ivy Elkins during her family's dream trip to Iceland.

Last summer, the Elkins family took a dream vacation to Iceland. After she returned from climbing to the top of a waterfall, her husband said with smiling eyes, “You have more energy than I do.”

That simple, warm moment reminded Elkins that she doesn’t want to miss even the small experiences in life. “I am thankful for every day,” she said.

She also makes her days count in other ways. Now an active advocate for lung cancer research, Elkins represents patients at national and international conferences and is involved in the organization LUNGevity.  She recently co-founded the EGFR Resisters, a grassroots patient group with the goal of accelerating research.

“Cancer can’t compete with the rest of my life,” she said. “Yes, I have cancer, but it doesn’t have me.”

Cancer Can't Compete

Cancer survivor Anthony Rizzo is teaming up with the Chicago Tribune, along with the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, Mariano’s and the University of Chicago Medicine, in a campaign to raise money for cancer research and support for families as they fight cancer together.

Cancer Can't Compete
Radiologist Christopher Straus, MD, reviews radiology images

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.