A Clinical Trial for Kidney Cancer Ends up Being the Answer – Al De Carlo’s Story

"Because of my medical conditions and cancer, I’ve had to slow down a little bit, but thanks to the amazing people at Fox Chase, I am able to continue living the life I love."
‐Al De Carlo

Now that I’m 74 and retired, I spend most of my time outside or in the garage. Since my service in the Navy, where I worked as a ship fitter, taking care of the plumbing and mechanical issues, I’ve always been fascinated with machines and how they work. So for me, as crazy as it seems to my wife, working outside, tinkering with machines, and splitting wood, isn’t hard work – it’s my playtime.

Investigating abnormal symptoms leads to a kidney cancer diagnosis

I had just come in from the garage one day in 2007, when I was stunned to see blood in my urine. Concerned, I immediately went to the emergency room. The doctor concluded my prostate was enlarged and I would need to see a urologist. When I got to the urologist a few days later, he did a routine scan of my prostate, and saw that my right kidney had a tumor about the size of a plum tomato. We were all shocked. In a matter of weeks I went from having zero pain and discomfort, to discovering blood in my urine, to finding out that I had kidney cancer.

My surgeon decided part of my kidney needed to be removed, but issues with my heart forced me to have a stent put in. Just weeks after that procedure, my surgeon was confirming a date with me to have part of my kidney removed.

Finding the right treatment plan, just in time

Lucky for me, my daughter told a friend of hers about my situation. Her friend works at Fox Chase Cancer Center, and she connected me to Rosalia Viterbo, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase. To say Dr. Viterbo was concerned was an understatement. She was worried that my surgeon wanted to operate right after I had a stent put in. In her mind this was very risky and dangerous.

Al and his wife Grace, with Dr. Plimack.
Al and his wife Grace, with Dr. Plimack.

I liked my surgeon and didn’t have any intention of going elsewhere for treatment, but my daughter was very insistent that I go see Dr. Viterbo. I am so grateful that I listened to her.

When I met Dr. Viterbo and heard her strategy for removing my kidney, I was very impressed. She was so kind and straightforward. I could tell immediately that she was the surgeon I wanted. She worked with my cardiologist to make sure it was safe for me to have surgery.

After a few months of waiting, my cardiologist gave the green light and I was scheduled to have a partial removal of my kidney. A year and a half later, in 2010, scans revealed the cancer had spread, so Dr. Viterbo removed the remaining portion of my kidney.

Following the second surgery, I went in for scans every six months to make sure the cancer was gone. For many years the scans came back clean, but in 2014, Dr. Viterbo noticed that my lymph nodes were getting bigger. Concerned, she sent me to a medical oncologist at Fox Chase who performed a biopsy and discovered the cancer had returned.

Turning to a clinical trial when kidney cancer returned

Dr. Viterbo told me about a clinical trial to treat renal cell carcinoma. I was a good candidate for the trial so I began immediately.

The clinical trial studies the effectiveness of the immunotherapy drug nivolumab combined with the drug ipilimumab, which reprograms my immune system to fight the cancer.

Now I see Elizabeth Plimack, a medical oncologist at Fox Chase, who is currently running this trial. I’ve been on the trial for about three and a half years, I go every two weeks for treatment, and I feel great.

Dr. Plimack is wonderful. I’ve been at Fox Chase for so long, everyone is like family to me. The nurses in clinical research, Lois and Kim, do a tremendous job and make what would normally be a tough treatment into something enjoyable. Dr. Viterbo is almost like a niece. In fact, since I’m a retired plumber, I’ve done some work on her home. She jokes that I’m her plumber, and she’s mine. Without Dr. Viterbo, Dr. Plimack, and the rest of my team, I wouldn’t be on this trial and wouldn’t be as healthy as I am now. I am grateful to everyone involved in my treatment.

I had another surgery in February 2018 to repair an aneurysm, and both Dr. Plimack and Dr. Viterbo were watching me closely. They want to make sure I am otherwise healthy first before they continue on with treatments for the cancer.

In late February 2018, Dr. Plimack gave me wonderful news. My immune system had responded so well to the trial that my scans are virtually clear. She gave me the option of going off the trial and continuing to be monitored. I feel so lucky, but I know in the eight years since I’ve been a patient at Fox Chase that not everyone is as lucky as I am.

Getting back to the things I love

Over the years, the people at Fox Chase have grown to be like a second family to me, and that includes my fellow patients. I’ve gotten to know some amazing people over the years, and unfortunately not all of them make it. That’s been the hardest part. I know how hard it is on the doctors too, who work so hard to save us. That’s the thing I love most about Fox Chase. I am more than a number. Here, I’m a person.

At 74 years old, I have a lot to be grateful for. My wife, Grace, and I will be married 53 years in May, I have two beautiful daughters, Lisa and Laura, and I’m still active enough to work out in the yard. Because of my medical conditions and cancer, I’ve had to slow down a little bit, but thanks to the amazing people at Fox Chase, I am able to continue living the life I love.

Learn more about the kidney cancer treatment program at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Learn more about clinical trials for kidney cancer at Fox Chase Cancer Center.