In 2015, doctors diagnosed George Keays with stage 4 lung cancer, which has low survival rates beyondone or two years. Can a vaccine in Cuba help him more than drugs available in the U.S.?
An American Cancer Patient Receives Treatment in Cuba
Published: April 2, 2020
George Keays: You know, I’m not trying to break the law. I’m not, but I’m also not gonna die.
Onscreen: George Keays has stage 4 lung cancer. To receive his cutting-edge treatment, he travels 2,000 miles to Cuba.
Keays: I think it was March of 2015, I went for an annual physical with my primary care doctor. He said at that time, you know, your cough looks kinda like maybe an allergic cough. But the cough was getting worse and so ordered a CAT scan.
And I remember I left the office and the doctor called me and said, “Get back in here. You have a growth in your lung.”
So, then I went for a full body PET scan to determine how far this had spread. It showed that I had eight metastasizes in the chest along the lymph nodes, one in the shoulder and it had spread to my brain so, I had a brain tumor as well.
William Blanchet: Here is a reconstructed CAT scan. This is the metastasis.
Narrator: One reason lung cancer is so deadly is that often, by the tie there are symptoms—like coughing, back pain or difficulty breathing—the disease has already spread.
Blanchet: A large tumor here
Narrator: This was distressing news for George, a non-smoker. His lung cancer cells had been growing undetected for years.
Keays: At that point, you know, the prognosis was pretty grim, less than two years, probably less than a year.
Mary Reid: Late stage lung cancer progresses very quickly. Historically there hasn’t really been much to do other than try chemotherapy, try radiation, try some maybe targeted therapy and then, keep people comfortable until they die.
Keays: I had had 15 radiation treatments in the clinical trial program and one radiation treatment to the brain.
I was taking gene therapy. And then cancer mutates, it basically starts to get smart about what you’re treating it with.
Narrator: Watching the news one evening, George learns about new treatments emerging in Cuba.
News Report: A lung cancer vaccine, developed in Cuba…
Keays: I actually saw it on television where people from Roswell Cancer Center in New York went to Cuba, and they were looking at alternative treatments.
Narrator: His research convinces him the Cuban drugs might help more than what is available in the U.S.
George wants in. His doctor urges him to call Havana.
Keays: And they said, “Yeah, we think that, you know, you could come down here, and see if a vaccine might work."
I get one to two calls a week from people who have heard about me, have heard that I’m coming here, and ask questions, like, “Where do you get the vaccine? How did it work for you?" I think there are some people for whom this might not work, but I think there are a lot of people for whom this can be beneficial.
Anabely Garcia: It’s no pain, because the needle is so thin. Mosquito.
Narrator: At La Pradera, oncologists administer George’s Vaxira prescription.
George’s doctor and close friend Dr. William Blanchet is in Havana to lend support.
Blanchet: The cancer was growing. The cancer markers were getting bigger on this agent. His oncologist increased the dosage; the cancer continued to get bigger. We added the Vaxira and his cancer gets smaller. And so, on the three-year anniversary of being diagnosed with horrible stage-four lung cancer, this guy runs a 10K run and puts an offer down on a house. Those are things that people three years into stage four-lung cancer tend not to do.
Narrator: But George is not cured. Cancer continues to be a daily struggle. In addition to Vaxira, he’s undergoing a number of treatments in the U.S. Despite this, his doctors recently discovered a new metastasis in his liver.
Keays: It’s a hell of a thing to have to take a risk with your wellbeing that you—that somebody could say, “Well, you’re breaking the law.”
If I can’t walk, I’ll be on my knees. If I can’t be on my knees, I’ll crawl. But I’ll continually try to get back up. And that will be my life.
Cuba's Cancer Hope
Edited by: Robert Kirwan
Produced by: Kelly Thomson
Directed by: Llewellyn M. Smith
Digital Producer: Noor Nasser
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2020