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December 28, 2021

Metastatic Lung Cancer Survivor Shares Story of 'Never Give Up'

Nelson Turner, metastatic lung cancer patient

If there’s one thing you should know about Nelson Turner, it’s that he never gives up.

It’s a philosophy that’s got him through a lot in life. And it’s what got him through the worst health scare imaginable.

In 2018, Turner saw his doctor about what he thought was a cyst on his arm. The growth – about the size of a billiard ball – was a cause for concern, but the 66-year-old never expected that his doctor would tell him it was cancerous.

“I came back to the car and I lost it,” he said. “When you talk about cancer, you talk about death. And I wasn’t ready to go yet.”

Having seen his own mother lose her life to cancer, Turner was conditioned to expect the worst. And around the same time of his diagnosis, Turner’s brother was fighting a cancer battle of his own, which would ultimately take his life.

But before that could happen, Turner’s brother told him in no uncertain terms: don’t give up.

“That kept me going,” Turner said. “That kept me focused on being alive. You’ve got to have some purpose to want to be here, and that was my purpose. My brother told me to not give up so I didn’t.”

In short time, Turner’s doctor sent him to the UW Carbone Cancer Center, where he was put under the care of oncologist Anne Traynor, MD. The official diagnosis seemed grim: metastatic lung cancer that had spread to the brain, lymph nodes, his left arm and an adrenal gland.

Treating a patient with such a significant tumor burden – let alone curing them – is no easy task. But thanks to advances in immunotherapy, plus a little bit of genetic luck, Traynor developed a plan that she thought could work. It wouldn’t be easy, but Turner was willing to put his trust in the oncologist he had just recently met.

“You gotta believe in something,” he said. “Sometimes, you need help and need somebody to guide you and show you the right way. She did that for me.”

Through a biopsy and additional testing, Traynor discovered Turner’s tumor had a high composition of PDL1 protein – a factor determined by genetics. Out of a possible score of 100, Turner’s PDL1 test came back as a 90, meaning there was a good chance that an immunotherapy drug would be effective in fighting the cancer.

So Traynor started him on a course of two different chemotherapies and an immunotherapy to stimulate the immune system. Over time, the chemotherapy was able to be scaled back, but the immunotherapy treatments kept coming. And coming. And coming.

“He received a ridiculous number of immunotherapy treatments alone,” Traynor said. “Over the course of three years, he had more than 40 of these treatments.”

But throughout the whole time, Turner hung in there. He experienced the expected side-effects, and was treated for both kidney irritation and a pulmonary embolism. But he came to each and every appointment – and it paid off.

More than three years after his first visit to the clinic – and about a month before his 70th birthday – Traynor was able to give Turner the news that he was officially cancer-free.

That day, in conversations with friends and family, the tears flowed. Turner’s first phone call was to his sister to tell her the news, and how their brother’s words – don’t give up – kept him going through the long weeks of treatment.

As for Traynor, Turner isn’t shy about calling her his “angel” for effectively saving his life.

She’s something special,” he said. “When I first met her, she told me, ‘I got you.’ That was a wonderful thing, hearing that and knowing I wouldn’t have to fight this thing alone. And so, here I am. Years later, I’m still here.”

Not long after being declared cancer-free, Turner was able to celebrate his milestone birthday in the company of all four of his daughters. He credits them with supporting him throughout his cancer journey, but also gives an extra shout-out to the nurses and clinical staff of UW Carbone. “All of them are just like family,” he said.

And while treating patients with metastatic cancer is all part of a day’s work for UW Carbone oncologists, Traynor says there was definitely something special about Turner that will stick with her for a long time.

“I will just never forget him,” she said. “It was an honor to be with him, learn about him, see how brave he was and how consistent and persistent he was. I’ll always love him and be so thankful for him. He inspires all of us.”

Turner’s advice to those in his shoes: have faith in something. For him, that meant having faith in God, faith in his medical team, and perhaps most importantly, faith in himself.

“Don’t give up, just because it’s cancer,” he said. “It’s not the end, just because you have cancer. You can make it, I’m making it. I’m enjoying life right now, I’m happy and I’m truly blessed.”