How MSK Is Helping Dennis Survive Stage 4 Kidney Cancer

Dennis Flaherty

More than three years after being diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer, Dennis Flaherty is doing exceptionally well.

When Dennis Flaherty was told he had stage 4 kidney cancer in February 2021, the doctor who diagnosed him at a local hospital on Long Island suggested he get his affairs in order. But from the moment he learned he had cancer, Dennis knew he wanted to be treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK).

Three years later, Dennis is doing exceptionally well and has no signs of cancer, thanks to MSK’s team of kidney cancer experts. His story illustrates why U.S. News & World Report ranked MSK the top hospital in the country for urology care in 2023.

“I’ve never felt like a number at MSK,” says Dennis, now 54. “Everyone who takes care of me knows exactly who I am, and they all treat me like family.”

How Dennis Learned He Had Stage 4 Kidney Cancer

Julia and Dennis Flaherty

Dennis, shown here with his daughter, Julia, says that spending time at the beach was an important part of his recovery from stage 4 kidney cancer.

For Dennis, a construction manager and father of a teenage daughter, the kidney cancer diagnosis came as a shock. He’d been experiencing some common kidney cancer symptoms — mainly back pain and night sweats — for a while, but he and his doctor chalked it up to middle age.

“I still remember the day I was diagnosed with kidney cancer,” Dennis says. “I was getting ready to take my daughter sledding, and when I went to the bathroom, I urinated blood and blood clots. I knew I needed to get to the ER right away.” A scan there revealed cancer in his kidney and lung.

Kidney cancer is about twice as common in men as in women, according to the American Cancer Society. About 80,000 cases are diagnosed every year. The rate of new kidney cancers had been rising since the 1990s but has plateaued in recent years.

How MSK Treated Dennis’ Kidney Cancer as a Team

When Dennis got to MSK, biopsies and additional scans showed that the cancer had also spread to his brain and bones (spreading to other parts of the body is why he was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer). His team quickly developed a comprehensive plan to treat him and eliminate the cancer.

Dr. Robert Motzer

Dr. Robert Motzer led the clinical trial for the combination immunotherapy treatment that Dennis received.

The immunotherapy Dennis received was a combination of the checkpoint inhibitor drugs ipilimumab (Yervoy®) and nivolumab (Opdivo®). These drugs work by releasing a natural brake on the immune system, letting immune cells called T cells recognize and attack tumors. Dr. Motzer led the clinical trial that resulted in this drug combination being approved for kidney cancer in 2018.

Throughout treatment, Dennis received a lot of support from his family and friends. And he never doubted that he would get better. “The first time I met with Dr. Motzer, he explained to me that my situation was serious, but he never mentioned the word ‘death,’ ” Dennis remembers. “The only time he used that word was to describe the cancer after I finished treatment. He told me, ‘I think your cancer is dead.’ Once the shock wore off, I felt like the happiest person alive.”

Dennis Has No Evidence of Disease and Continues To Receive Follow-Up Care at MSK

Today Dennis still relies on many of MSK’s experts to provide follow-up care.

He still sees Dr. Motzer regularly, but now that he’s doing so well, Dennis has graduated to telemedicine appointments. He’s also able to get scans and other tests at MSK Nassau, which is closer to his home.

Thanks to the remarkable care that he received, Dennis has become an enthusiastic advocate for MSK. “Growing up in New York City, I always heard that MSK was the best, but I didn’t know how easy it would be to get treatment there,” he says. “Now whenever I hear that someone has been diagnosed with cancer, I urge them to just pick up the phone and call MSK for an appointment.”