Georgia Man Survives Lung Cancer 'Death Sentence'

At 73, Ed Levitt has stepped - by choice - into life's slower lane.

He makes the time to take care of, even baby, his 1983 Datsun 280-ZX 2+2 turbo. This, from a guy who used to joke he'd work until the day he died. Until the day he was told he was dying, of stage four lung cancer.

That day, Levitt says, "I did something I've never done before in my life, I cried."

Married 42 years ago, Ed and Linda Levitt were told Ed, whose cancer had spread throughout his body,  had just weeks to live, and no real treatment options.

He says, "There was no hope, zero."

Linda says, "I said, 'I don't accept that. And there's other places we can go.'"

The Levitts came to Emory's Winship Cancer Institute.  At the time, more than a decade ago, Dr. Suresh Ramalingam, Director of Winship's Medical Oncology Program, says most doctors took a one-size-fits-all approach to treating lung cancer.

Dr. Ramalingam says "Any patient, Patient A, Patient B, Patient C, would get the same treatment."

But Ed had a received very bad diagnosis at a very good time in cancer research.  Winship and other research centers were beginning to understand that no two lung cancer patients are alike.  Each has his own unique biological factors at play.  By identifying exactly what was driving the patient's cancer, Dr. Ramalingam says they hoped to develop personalized therapies tailored to each patient.

Instead of just receiving the standard chemotherapy and radiation, Ed Levitt eventually ended up helping test a breakthrough lung cancer therapy known as Iressa that changed everything for him. The treatment targeted a specific genetic mutation Ed carried, known as a eGFR mutation, that was fueling his cancer cells to multiply.

Dr. Ramalingam says "We call it a 'driver mutation.' So, that mutation is sitting in the driver's seat and driving the cancer."

Ed, who originally took the drug to help boost his response to radiation treatments, says he was stunned by the results.

He says, "It started to work, and the tumors started to leave me like crazy. They started disappearing, from my face all the way down to my legs. Everywhere!"

Dr. Ramalingam says, "By using these pills, we can cause significant reduction in the size of the tumor. We can significantly improve the patient's lifespan."

The targeted drugs are also easier on the patient than the traditional cancer-fighting tools like chemotherapy.

It's been a battle, but 11 and a half years after his initial diagnosis, Ed Levitt is still going strong.

He believes the only reason he's still here is the medication.

He jokes, "It's magic! The lawyers, I was told by AstraZeneca, who makes it, that I cannot use the word 'magic.' Their lawyers don't like it. And I said, 'I'm still alive! It's magic!'"

Magic, at a price. Ed says he takes one pill a day, and the treatment costs about $100,000 a year.

He says, "The bad news is it's so expensive, it's almost impossible for the average person to get ahold of it. Because who could afford it?"

Ed is an outlier. Few advanced lung cancer patients live this long. Dr. Ramalingam thinks Ed is one of only a couple hundred advanced lung cancer survivors in the U.S. Ramalingam says they're conducting new research looking into why some people like Ed respond so well so well to these targeted treatments while others do not.

More than a decade after they were told there was little hope, the Levitts are grateful for their second chance.

Ed says, "Now I take everything in stride, I enjoy my life."

Linda says, "It's changed our relationship, and it's changed our life in many, many ways. For the better."