Professor Dr. Claudio Denzlinger and patient Brigitte Dorsch
Brigitte Dorsch is now 72 years old. She has lived with cancer for 30 years. But in 2017 he seemed to have beaten it. Because a new tumor in the throat proved to be resistant to therapy. "I was told chemotherapy could prolong my life some more, but I didn’t want to put myself through that hardship. So I had myself transferred from the hospital to die at home," she recalls. Then she learned about a modern immunotherapy with checkpoint inhibitors that was newly offered at Marienhospital. In 2018, its inventors were even awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for it – quite rightly, in Brigitte Dorsch’s view. "The drug worked, the cancer disappeared, and currently I am cancer-free and doing well," she says.
Tumor on the tonsils
In 1989, Brigitte Dorsch felt a strange thickening in her throat. "My doctor thought it was tonsillitis and gave me antibiotics," says the Ludwigsburg native. When the complaints persisted and she was examined more closely, it turned out that Brigitte Dorsch was suffering from cancer of the tonsils.
"The tumor was operated out in 1990 at the ENT clinic at Marienhospital. Before that, I smoked one last cigarette and then never again, because the cancer probably came from smoking, too," she recalls. After surgery and radiation, Brigitte Dorsch was initially cured of cancer. But eight years later, the disease flared up again: in 2007, tumors were removed from her buccal mucosa and left lung. "But I recovered well after that and had eight more healthy years," says Brigitte Dorsch. In 2015 she got cancer again. "A tumor deep in the throat. The six weeks in the hospital with radiation and chemo were incredibly hard," she says.
Home to die
Despite the strenuous treatment, the tumor did not disappear completely. It continued to grow over time. Brigitte Dorsch got pneumonia. Because due to a tumor-related dysphagia, food had entered the lungs. The patient had to be fed through a stomach tube. "Another radiation was not possible because I had already received the maximum dose. I was offered another chemo. But it would probably only have prolonged my life by a few months. I was discharged from the hospital and went home to die."
New therapy saved her
Because of her pneumonia, Brigitte Dorsch was also treated at the Marienhospital Pneumology Department (focus on pulmonary medicine at the Clinic for Internal Medicine 2). "A doctor there told me that at Marienhospital, modern immunotherapy with checkpoint inhibitors was being performed. And so I presented to Professor Denzlinger," she says. The cancer expert is medical director of the Clinic for Internal Medicine 3 and head of the interdisciplinary center for oncology (cancer) at Marienhospital. "Professor Denzlinger told me that immunotherapy is effective in only about 20 percent of patients, but that it often works surprisingly well when it does. I had nothing to lose, so I agreed," she says.
In November 2017 the treatment began. "I came in every two weeks for outpatient immunotherapy and was given a drip of the drug nivolumab a total of 33 times for about two hours each time," Ms. Dorsch said. "The remedy worked, the ENT tumor disappeared, as did several daughter tumors," recalls Professor Denzlinger. However, Annette Dorsch suffered from severe side effects. "Mrs. Dorsch’s joints became inflamed. We had to treat this with cortisone and temporarily interrupt the therapy with nivolumab," says the cancer expert. But after 66 weeks of treatment the body was almost cancer free. Only a small tumor in the lung was still present. In early September 2019, she had this removed in the thoracic surgery of the Marienhospital, then Brigitte Dorsch was cancer-free.
Long life despite cancer?
The checkpoint inhibitors ensure that a patient’s dysfunctional immune system is restored to its ability to destroy cancer cells, which, after all, are also found in every healthy body. Professor Denzlinger: "Many experts hope that through the interaction of such new and tried and tested therapies, cancer will eventually become a disease with which one can almost always grow old."Living with cancer" is a current buzzword in cancer research, loosely translated as "growing old despite cancer.". And Brigitte Dorsch says: "It would be nice if, in a few decades, cancer were something like high blood pressure, sugar or AIDS are today. Even if these diseases are not curable yet, you can grow old with them and live a good life for a long time."
CONTACT – Clinic for Internal Medicine 3
Professor Dr. Claudio Denzlinger is Medical Director of the Clinic for Internal Medicine 3 at Marienhospital. Together with ten other doctors, he treats around 1,200 cancer patients as inpatients and more than 4,000 as outpatients there every year.