Battling a Rare, Genetic Lung Cancer (Video)

Young man fights two rounds with cancer


We often associate lung cancer with tobacco, but 25-year-old Matthew Hiznay is a lung cancer patient who never smoked a cigarette. He is battling a rare form of genetic lung cancer for the second time in less than two years.

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When Hiznay was about to begin his second year of medical school at the University of Toledo College of Medicine, a persistent dry cough sent him to his family doctor, who made a preliminary diagnosis of a lung disease — sarcoidosis — and referred him to Cleveland Clinic.

Nathan Pennell, MD, PhD, a thoracic oncologist, diagnosed Hiznay with an aggressive form of lung cancer caused by a genetic mutation —  Stage IV anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK)-positive nonsmall cell lung cancer.

Hiznay says, “I kept thinking, ‘I’m 24. I’m a lifelong nonsmoker. It’s not cancer. I’m not supposed to get cancer.’”

Fighting cancer the first time

The same day Hiznay learned of his diagnosis, a new drug, Xalkori, which targets Hiznay’s specific form of lung cancer, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It would take time, however, for Hiznay to qualify for the drug.

He was scheduled to begin chemotherapy, but then he stopped breathing. Emergency surgery revealed a buildup of fluid around his heart and in his lungs from the cancer and lymph-node swelling. His airways were constricted, which caused his lungs to collapse.

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Fortunately, by that time, Hiznay did qualify for Xalkori. He recovered from surgery and after being released from the hospital, he continued taking the drug. At a follow-up visit two months later, he received some stunning news: “Dr. Pennell said, ‘You’re in remission,’” says Hiznay.

Another round with cancer

Unfortunately, the fight wasn’t over. The night before a follow-up appointment with Dr. Pennell a few months later, Hiznay noticed a swelling in his left shoulder. “In the deepest, darkest part of my mind, I knew what it was,” he says.

A needle biopsy confirmed the cancer had returned.

“When it came back — and it’s just how the disease is — there were mental barriers,” says Hiznay. “You never want to think everything’s good because it’s never really gone. It wasn’t as much of a complete shock to hear those words as it was the first time, but I thought I would get more than eight months.”

Hiznay underwent surgery to remove the swollen lymph node. Afterward, Dr. Pennell helped facilitate an appointment with D. Ross Camidge, MD, PhD, who studies genetic cancers.

Dr. Camidge was conducting a clinical trial with a new drug at the University of Colorado Hospital. Hiznay started the new drug therapy. So far, he says 99 percent of cancers have responded to the oral  medication known as LDK378.

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Beginning again

Describing his experience, Hiznay says, “Sometimes I forget – well, not really, but I can put it out of my mind. My cancer is still Stage IV; you never go backwards, even if it’s in remission.

“The most important thing is a positive mental outlook. I can’t always say that for myself. I have to remind myself to keep a good outlook on everything and take it one day at a time.”

He is now enrolled in the Molecular Medicine PhD Program at Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute. “I’ll still contribute at the patient level as a researcher, just not as directly as if I were a physician.”

Today, Hiznay is engaged to Ally Stojkoska, his girlfriend of four years. Their families live in the Cleveland area and are a tremendous source of support. “It’s important to enjoy where you are right now,” he says. “Plan for the future, but enjoy today.”

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