Arlington, Texas, retiree celebrates cancer breakthrough

"We celebrate our wins," said Kenny Keown. "I've been blessed through this process," he said of a Baylor Scott & White Health clinical trial.

arlington, Texas — An Arlington retiree, fearing he'd been given a likely death sentence, happened to seek medical treatment at Baylor Scott & White in dallas. It was a serendipitous choice. BS&W doctors, conducting a clinical trial specifically for his type of cancer, were looking for someone just like him.

If you are trying to find Kenny Keown, the best place to start looking is his own surgically-clean garage/man cave at his Arlington home.

"This is a 2009 C6," Keown said, while seated next to his mint-condition metallic red Corvette.

"I've had four Corvettes," he said. "Enjoyed every one of them. This one, I just love the color!"

But the life of this Corvette-loving 73-year-old recently took one very big unexpected turn.

Keown was on a Mediterranean cruise with his wife, Diane. One of the highlights was the 5-star cruise-ship dining room.

"They give you all the different kinds of meat—just a little bit of each one," he said of the dining room service. And I ate and ate and ate. We got back to the room, and I lay there, and I said I overdid it this time. My chest started hurting."

Actually overdoing it wasn't really the problem. Because back home in Dallas, his doctor told him the pain in his chest was esophageal cancer.

"It's rough. It'll knock you off your rails," Keown said of the diagnosis. "The first thing I read...and I shut down. I had a 10% chance of living six months," he said of the online predictions he found.

Except that next serendipitous turn took him to Baylor Scott & White Health and medical oncologist Dr. Ronan Kelly.

"This is a huge advance in my opinion," Kelly said of a clinical study specifically for esophageal cancer. 

They were studying if, when treating esophageal cancer just like Kenny's, whether the patient could benefit from immunotherapy and chemotherapy and radiation, all delivered before a surgical procedure to remove an esophageal or gastroesophageal cancerous tumor. The second advance was tracking something called circulating tumor DNA, a blood test that would determine how much, if any, of that old tumor was still in Kenny's blood.

The study, published last week in Nature Medicine, was titled "Neoadjuvant nivolumab or nivolumab plus LAG-3 inhibitor relatlimab in resectable esophageal/gastroesophageal junction cancer: a phase Ib trial and ctDNA analyses."

"Up to this point we've never had anything like this," said Dr. Kelly. "If a patient is negative for circulating DNA post-op, they may be done! They may not need any more treatment.  If it's not gone and it's still detectable, we need to be much more aggressive in our approach. This will help in that decision-making process. This new information is practice-changing."

And it was the start of better news for patients like Kenny and his crystal metallic red Corvette. Today, those tracking blood tests show that the cancer-free.

"We celebrate our wins," Keown said. "I've been blessed through this process. This may sound corny, but it was like a warm hug. All of a sudden, I had hope!"

There was one more ride Kenny wanted to talk about: a ride in a hospital elevator. He says he will always remember the other patient who stepped into the elevator with him. A woman with a huge smile on her face.

"And I looked over, and this woman's glowing. She's excited about something," he said. "I said you got good news, didn't ya? And she sai,d 'I sure did.' And we were dancing, just me and her on the elevator. When the doors opened, we just looked at each other and walked off the elevator."

"You celebrate the wins," Keown added.

Doctors at Baylor Scott & White are celebrating this win, too, and how, in treating this type of cancer, they might no longer be driving blind.

"So we can really optimize patients in what we're giving them and how we can improve their long-term survival," said Dr. Kelly.

Living proof in Arlington, where a convertible red Corvette and a clean bill of health have a grinning car buff living for the twists and turns of one very open and cancer-free road.

"All of a sudden, you'll catch yourself smiling," Keown said while taking his convertible for an Arlington drive.  

"Oh, we celebrate the wins," he grinned again.


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