In December 2013, Kirk Smith was diagnosed with stage IIIb lung cancer. As a non-smoker, the diagnosis raised red flags. Doctors told Kirk that he had an ALK+ mutation, a genetic mutation found in a small number of lung cancer patients. With a five-year survival rate for stage IIIb lung cancer of five percent, the numbers gave Kirk pause. By January, he had started taking a new targeted therapy to shrink his tumors, and despite the diagnosis, he wasn’t giving up on his active lifestyle.
A longtime runner, Kirk started training for a half-marathon again, and quickly found that regular exercise helped him manage some side effects he’d experienced from the medication. He not only finished the marathon in early March, he bested his goal time and finished fourth in his age group.
A few months later, Kirk switched medications again due to side effects. He was able to change to a drug that had just received FDA approval because of its tremendous success in clinical trials. Kirk stayed on that medication for more than three years, until cancer was detected in his brain. He then moved to an even newer drug—one that had shown greater success in diminishing brain lesions and working through the blood/brain barrier. Now, Kirk’s tumors have shrunk, his lymph nodes are clear, and he’s able to train and race endurance events at a pretty high level.
“These therapies have allowed me to live the way I normally live—as a very physically active person,” he says. “The changes in medication and treatment for metastatic lung cancer are truly amazing. Research led to an understanding of the genetic mutations causing my disease and the development of the medication I am taking. Cancer therapies have allowed me, and patients like me, live an active life—racing, competing, working and living—despite the disease. Research makes a difference. Research saves lives. The reality, in my case, is that I am alive because of it.”