Laryngeal cancer survivor credits Phase I trial for lifesaving results

January 11, 2021
Tony Pesavento stands outside with a garden path behind him
Tony Pesavento has been cancer-free since completing a clinical trial in early 2019 and is living proof of the importance of cancer research and finding new treatments. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

When Tony Pesavento was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer in 2015, he underwent what felt like “every treatment under the sun” to stop the progression of the disease and to improve his symptoms. After an unsuccessful attempt to cut away the cancer using endoscopic laser surgery, Pesavento underwent six weeks of radiation before having surgery at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center to remove his larynx — only to find that the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

Following an additional six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, Pesavento was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic disease. That’s when he was approached about enrolling in a Phase I clinical trial testing a new drug combination for advanced cancers — a trial he credits with saving his life.

“I’m living proof that if cancer research didn’t exist, I probably wouldn’t be here,” said Pesavento, who completed the trial in early 2019 and has been cancer-free ever since. “That’s why I believe it’s important to continue conducting research to keep discovering more modernized ways to combat cancer and any other number of diseases.”

Led by site primary investigator John Kaczmar, M.D., the trial aimed to evaluate the safety, tolerability and clinical benefit of a novel immunotherapy drug called Cabiralizumab when used in combination with the drug nivolumab, which is a standard treatment used to treat a variety of cancers. Cabiralizumab has not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meaning it’s only available to patients involved in clinical trials.

The study enrolled patients with advanced solid tumors of the lung, head, neck, pancreas, ovaries, kidneys, brain and spine who could not be treated with standard treatment courses. Hollings was one of 39 sites across the country to make the trial available to patients.

“Tony is a true fighter. He battled multiple recurrences of larynx cancer that despite aggressive treatments metastasized. In the face of this, he had the bravery to proceed with a Phase I trial featuring a novel immunotherapy combination.”
— Dr. John Kaczmar

Data from the trial led to the further development of Cabiralizumab for pancreatic cancer but not in larynx cancers, said Kaczmar, but the benefits Pesavento received from his participation are real and made it worth the effort.

“Tony is a true fighter. He battled multiple recurrences of larynx cancer that despite aggressive treatments metastasized. In the face of this, he had the bravery to proceed with a Phase I trial featuring a novel immunotherapy combination. Remarkably, he had a complete response, finished two years of treatment and has now been off therapy and is still without any signs of cancer,” said Kaczmar, who added that finding improved treatments for advanced laryngeal cancer is a great need.

“Not all clinical trials prove successful, but over time, they do help broaden and improve treatment options as we seek to further extend the time our patients have with their loved ones.”

Pesavento served more than 24 years with the U.S. Marine Corps, including a combat tour during the Vietnam War, so he’s no stranger to facing battles head on. He admits that he was hesitant at first to be placed on an investigational treatment, but his reliance on his faith helped him to remain optimistic.

“I’m Catholic, and I believe in prayer. Saint Peregrine is the patron saint of people with cancer, and a part of a prayer to him says: ‘For many years you bore having cancer with no earthly power being able to assist you, and then you sought God’s help, and you were favored with a vision of Jesus coming off of His cross to heal you,’” said Pesavento. “I was saying that prayer one night, and I bumped the table that had a Crucifix on it, and the corpus fell off. I knew then that I would be OK.”

He has also leaned on his sense of humor and the support of his wife of 50 years, Pam, to help him cope. She drove him back and forth from their home in Beaufort, South Carolina, to Charleston for treatment every two weeks for two years while he was in the trial. The couple met and married while Pesavento was serving as a lieutenant at Parris Island and while Pam was a schoolteacher in Beaufort.

“She’s my rock,” said Pesavento.

Along with his wife, Pesavento is thankful for the staff at Hollings for taking every step they could to give him the best outcomes following his late-stage diagnosis. He’s especially grateful, he said, for his oncologists, Kaczmar, Eric Lentsch, M.D., and Anand K. Sharma, M.D.; his speech-language pathologist Julie Blair; his otolaryngologist Ashli O’Rourke, M.D.; and the staff in the Hollings Clinical Trials Office who helped to coordinate his care. He also said that the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge and its staff provided an invaluable service.

“I can’t say anything negative about anybody. From the receptionists to the nurses, the guy who brought around snacks, the volunteers who brought in the support dogs — everybody was just great. I’ve tried to show my appreciation with cards and candy, but I know that I will never be able to thank them enough,” said Pesavento. “I’d like to go back and visit them and let them see me now, but current circumstances preclude that, at least for now.”

While he doesn’t have any specific plans for 2021, he’s looking forward to the day when the COVID-19 pandemic is a thing of the past so he can properly celebrate how great he’s feeling now.

“But you know what they say,” said Pesavento. “‘Men make plans and God laughs.’”