COVID-19 complicates cancer treatment for thousands of patients

Diagnosed two years ago with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, Len Archer and his wife Paula had found a way to retire to Florida but keep going to Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Philadelphia, where Len had been undergoing treatment.

Every six weeks, according to their plan, the 59-year-old retired Richmond firefighter would jump on a plane in Orlando and fly up to Philadelphia for his immunotherapy infusion.

But by February, a new virus had forced Archer's doctor to change plans.

"He said 'I want you to stay away from a train station, a plane station, or even a taxicab stand, if you can keep away from them because you're immunocompromised, you need to take care of yourself," Archer says.

Know how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting Georgia

The doctor had a plan: CTCA would move the retired firefighter's care to its Atlanta facility in Newnan, Georgia, a six-hour drive door-to-door from the Archers' new home in the Villages. 

"My wife and I invested in an RV, because there is no 'maybe' with me and CTCA," Archer says. "I have to be here every six weeks, my life literally depends on it."

He camps overnight in the hospital's parking lot, which has RV hook-ups for out of town patients.

Sign up for FOX 5 email alerts

CTCA Atlanta Chief of Medicine Dr. Jeff Metts says Archer is a good example of their goal here: to try to avoid disrupting patient care during the pandemic, while at the same time being as safe as possible.

"Because our patient population is such a high-risk population, our mission is to keep COVID out of the center," Metts says.

Before infusions, Archer is screened for fever and other coronavirus symptoms, and he has contact only with a handful of people on his treatment team.

Metts says they check in with patients before they come in for care.

"We don't want people traveling when they're sick," he says. "We don't want them to spread COVID to other travelers. We don't want them to bring it into our center. We can't treat someone if they're having active COVID, but once they enter recovery we certainly can."

If a checkup doesn't have to be done in person, it's done virtually via telemedicine.

COVID-19 may have changed his plans, but Len Archer says the new plan is working.

And he's thriving in a way he never expected, when his first oncologist, who was not a CTCA doctor, gave him six months to live.

He hopes his story will give others facing a late-stage diagnosis hope.

"Stage 4, inoperable, multiorgan-tainted cancer, to go two years, robustly living, and wanting to do more," he says.  "If (my story) reaches one other person, what better testament to my life and the work of CTCA."

Download the FOX 5 Atlanta app for breaking news and weather alerts.