Back in 2014, Walter Pearsall noticed some blood when he coughed, but he had not experienced any other symptoms or indications that something serious might be wrong. His wife immediately brought him to the local ED where they ran tests and ultimately gave him devastating news, in front of his wife and some of his children, that he had lung cancer and most likely would not survive. He stayed in his local hospital for ten days and the team there confirmed his diagnosis as stage IIIA non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and recommended surgery, but told Walter they would need to remove some of his ribs in order to access the area.
With that knowledge, his wife Lethie suggested they get a second opinion and they soon found themselves in the hands of the Thoracic Oncology team at Smilow Cancer Hospital. e Yale team determined that he was not in fact a candidate for surgery due to several factors including extensive arterial involvement. Walter and Lethie soon met with Anne Chiang, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine (Medical Oncology) and Chief Network Officer and Deputy Chief Medical Officer of the Smilow Cancer Network. Dr. Chiang specializes in lung cancer treatment, and offered Walter another option that did not require invasive surgery, or a death sentence; a combination of chemotherapy and radiation delivered over five months.
For Walter and his wife, this news, and Dr. Chiang, were a blessing. The Interventional Oncology Program team performed a bronchial artery embolization to stop the bleeding that Walter was experiencing so he could begin this curative treatment option. “We are fortunate that we have a terrific multidisciplinary team that meets weekly to discuss our patients. at way, we can determine very quickly what the best combination of surgery, radiation, or systemic therapy is, and other specialty services that enable us to administer these treatments safely and with little side effects,” commented Dr. Chiang. “Today, we would add immunotherapy to the regimen we offered Mr. Pearsall, which shows how quickly the field is advancing. He is now beyond five years out from treatment and free of disease.”
Starting with his very first chemotherapy session, Walter documented his progress in photos. Six years later and still in remission, Walter has no lasting side effects other than scar tissue from the radiation and some anxiety. After instituting healthy lifestyle changes, Walter is living a full life and spending time with his 22 grandkids. He also joined a support group and makes an effort to encourage other patients. e group is now being held virtually, but Walter continues to bene¬ t and share his story with others to give them hope that yes, they can beat this.
Halley Robinson, Licensed Clinical Social Worker for the Thoracic Oncology Program commented, “I have to admit, when we transitioned the group to Zoom, I worried about whether or not the members would continue participating in the same way, but we have thrived in this platform. We are fortunate to have members like Walter, who have faced the uncertainty of a new cancer diagnosis, undergone the stressors and side effects that are commonly associated with treatment, and now, six years out, are thriving.
Walter recognizes and validates the difficult days that one might face with lung cancer, while also offering hope.” “I won’t lie, it was a long, tough road, but the only time I spent in the hospital were those ¬first ten days. I was able to go home after treatment and recover which was so important to me,” said Walter. “I have 13 children and they took turns, along with my wife Lethie, bringing me in for treatment. I am so thankful that I had that support system. I was scared and lost a lot of weight, lost my hair, and was very fatigued. My doctors took excellent care of my physical needs, and my family and faith took care of me mentally and spiritually.”
The five-year overall survival for stage IIIa disease is roughly 25% and the further out Walter gets, the better his odds, explained Dr. Chiang. “He is doing extremely well, and we have every hope and confidence that he will continue to do well.” Before COVID, Walter and Lethie loved to travel, and plan to do so again once it is safe. “I come from a military family and have lived all over the world including Alaska and England. I enjoy sharing stories of my childhood with my kids and grandkids,” said Walter. “They were my reason for ¬fighting; they still need me and I was not ready to leave them. People would always say to me, ‘those grandkids are like medicine to you,’ and they were right. They didn’t fully understand what I was going through, but the love from them kept me going through the darkest times. In a way, they helped save their ‘Papa.’” Walter is currently on his way to becoming a deacon in his church, New Light Holy Church in New Haven, and at the age of 63 feels that he has a second chance at life.
“Dr. Chiang is the best doctor there is. She saved my life, and I’m not sure where I would be without that second opinion, but it doesn’t matter because I am here, thanks to my family and the wonderful team at Smilow. I told my kids not to feel sorry for me, but to pray for me and to treat me like they always had. I am through the storm now and want to be there for others to show them they can get through it too.”