Joanne's Story

When Joanne Sabol was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2005, her first doctor told her there was no way to fight it. She came to Memorial Sloan Kettering for a second opinion, began treatment, and was in remission shortly thereafter. In 2013, when the cancer returned, MSK doctors recommended immunotherapy in hopes that it would jump-start her immune response. The plan worked: Joanne’s tumor shrunk more than 80%. Today, she is doing well and enjoying her ten grandchildren. 

Highlights
  • Joanne Sabol found a lump on her neck that turned out to be advanced lung cancer.
  • Doctors at MSK got her cancer into remission using a combination of chemotherapy and radiation.
  • Several years later, the cancer returned in her abdomen. Her treatment team recommended immunotherapy.
  • Joanne’s tumor shrunk 81% and her response has lasted more than two years.
  • Today, Joanne is still working and living a full life.

For Joanne Sabol, one of the perks of working at a Long Island doctor’s office as a registrar was that medical care was always readily accessible. So when the 65-year-old found a lump on her neck in July 2005, she casually asked her doctor to feel it.

Joanne was scheduled to see her nurse practitioner later that day, but when her doctor examined her, he sensed this couldn’t wait: He ordered a chest
x-ray and sent her for a surgical consultation. When the x-ray came back showing suspicious markings, the surgeon performed a biopsy right then and there. Days later, Joanne was told by a local oncologist that she had stage IV lung cancer — and that palliative care was her only option.

“I totally lost it,” she recalls.

But she wasn’t ready to give up. She went for a second opinion at MSK, which she calls “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

At MSK, Joanne was able to receive chemotherapy and radiation, which put her into remission. “I was absolutely thrilled because my initial prognosis was not good,” she says.

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Unfortunately, her battle wasn’t over. Six years later, Joanne was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had two lumpectomies and was recovering well until a PET scan came back with shocking news: Her lung cancer was back. Even worse, it had spread to her abdomen. MSK doctors told her surgery wasn’t an option, but they had another idea: pembrolizumab, a promising new form of immunotherapy treatment that would harness Joanne’s own immune system to attack the tumor.

She was nervous to try it. “Her hesitancy was totally understandable,” says medical oncologist Matthew Hellmann, Joanne’s doctor. “It was not well-known yet that immunotherapy was going to be the revolution for lung cancer.”

But Joanne agreed to the novel approach anyway. The treatment wasn’t always easy — she had significant muscle and joint pain as a result. But it did the job. Now, more than two years after starting therapy, Joanne’s tumor has shrunk a whopping 81%.

Moving Forward

Even with the best care, cancer doesn’t always follow a script. Joanne recently learned that her lymph nodes may still have some cancer in them, which Dr. Hellmann is treating with radiation. But this could be just a minor hiccup, he says.

“Sometimes resistance [to immunotherapy] can occur in just one spot that can be taken care of with radiation or surgery while the immunotherapy continues to work in the rest of the body,” he says. “Our hope and expectation is that her continued response to pembrolizumab will persist. We’ve seen it from other people before and anticipate that she’ll continue to stay well.”

Joanne, for her part, is continuing to stride forward. It’s now been 11 years since she was first told to start palliative care, and she has no intention of slowing down. Her job keeps her busy, as do her ten grandchildren. She counts faith and a sense of humor as two qualities that have gotten her through the hard parts, and she finds meaning in helping other families affected by cancer.

“I feel fantastic,” she says. “If people don’t believe miracles still happen, I am living proof that they do.”