June 6, 2024

Getting life back after clinical trial for metastatic kidney cancer

Husband and wife standing with their adult son and dog.
Bart Bortz, right, with his wife Melissa and son Noah.

The symptoms started subtly. Bart Bortz went to his doctor about a persistent cough in November 2015. Then, in early 2016, he began experiencing night sweats and fatigue.

Tests indicated that Bortz, who was 42 at the time, had strong inflammation in his body, but the cause wasn’t immediately clear. After seeing blood in his urine, a scan showed Bortz had a mass the size of a softball on his left kidney.

“So then they said, ‘Most likely, we’re not sure, but it could be cancerous,’” Bortz recalled.

A biopsy confirmed that Bortz, of Sun Prairie, had stage IV kidney cancer that had spread to his liver, pancreas, and other areas of his body. He was much younger than the typical kidney cancer patient, and his cancer was aggressive.

“Usually the median age at diagnosis is like 60-65 for kidney cancer, so he was a lot younger than the average patient,” said Bortz’s oncologist, Dr. Christos Kyriakopoulos.

Kidney cancer, also called renal cell carcinoma, is often diagnosed in later stages because it does not cause noticeable symptoms in early development. Aside from night sweats, fatigue and blood in the urine, Kyriakopoulos said patients may notice flank pain, elevated blood pressure, weight loss and the feeling of a mass in their abdomen if the tumor is large enough.

Shortly after being diagnosed, Bortz had surgery at UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center to remove the kidney tumor. He took two months to recover and began a clinical trial in May 2016, testing a new combination approach of two immunotherapies. At the time, immunotherapy was a second line treatment if patients did not respond to targeted therapies. The clinical trial tested the stepwise approach of starting with one immunotherapy treatment and adding the second one based on the patient’s response.

The combination of both immunotherapies included in the trial were approved by FDA shortly after Bortz started treatment.

“The aim of the study was to test whether a different approach on how to use those drugs was a good strategy,” according to Kyriakopoulos.

For Bortz, the approach proved very beneficial. Kyriakopoulos said Bortz scans immediately showed improvement, and after eight infusions, he had no evidence of cancer. He stopped treatments in fall 2016 and has been cancer-free since then. He continues to be screened annually for possible recurrence.

Bortz was amazed how well he felt during the clinical trial.

“There were very little side effects—that’s the one thing I cannot emphasize more. I mean, I never missed a day of work, actually. It was so unbelievable,” he said.

Kyriakopoulos agreed that Bortz had an exceptional response. Trials like the one Bortz participated in have helped advance new treatments and better quality of life for kidney cancer patients.

Bortz was grateful for the support of his family, friends and neighbors while he went through treatment. His faith and positive mindset also provided him with strength and hope.

“I mean, everybody suffers in life, right? We all have sufferings in life that we all go through, whether it’s cancer, some disease, something you’re battling with in your life,” he said. “But, of course, it makes you stronger to get through that life.”

He also praised the skill of the Carbone doctors and nurses who gave him excellent care and access to a clinical trial that put his life back on track.

“I can’t emphasize that enough, that right in your backyard, we have top notch hospitals we can go to for this treatment,” Bortz said.