Oswald Peterson’s Story
"Immunotherapy helps you fight the fight because it teaches your body to fight the cancer."
The costumes Carnival performers wear can weigh as much as 200 pounds. Oswald Peterson should know. Trained as a dancer in his youth, he's worn them for years while participating in Carnival in the festive streets of Trinidad. But on New Year's morning in 2017, Oswald could barely walk across the floor of his apartment, never mind wear a costume. "It took everything I had just to stand up," he recalls.
It had been a tough couple of years for the 53-year-old, who works in retail and cosmetic management. His partner of 25 years, Chrissy, died in April 2015. Later that year his mother, who became ill in 2013, also passed away. Oswald had cared for the two most important people in his life, and in a span of just a few months, they were both gone.
Oswald wanted to start fresh in 2017, but on New Year's Day, he once again found himself in a doctor's office, this time to treat himself. His local urgent care center concluded Oswald’s symptoms were due to pneumonia or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, especially since he had smoked since he was 14 years old. However, after a week of being on antibiotics, Oswald still didn't feel well. That's when he contacted his doctors at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where he was already a patient and where his partner had been treated.
Oswald called a car service and asked to be taken from his home in Canarsie, Brooklyn to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia in upper Manhattan. "Every breath I took felt like it was about to be my last breath," he remembers. Seeing how ill his passenger was, the driver kept asking Oswald, "Are you sure you want to go that far?" suggesting other hospitals along the way.
Despite his concerns, Oswald was adamant he wanted to be treated at NewYork-Presbyterian. "My mother always said whenever something is wrong with your health, go to NewYork-Presbyterian," Oswald says. "When my partner was treated there, I was impressed enough with their care to move mine there as well. I trusted NewYork-Presbyterian and had a front-row seat to see how well they care for patients."
When he arrived, his lung function was very poor. He was admitted to the hospital, where doctors began implementing various approaches to improve his health. A lung biopsy ultimately revealed the cause of his decline: stage IV (metastatic) non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), which had spread to his spine.
"When I heard stage IV lung cancer, I thought I had weeks to live. I just figured it was my time," says Oswald. He even began planning his funeral, right down to what he would wear and the songs on his playlist. "With everything I had gone through with my partner and mother, I had lost the will to win," he continues. "But my friends wanted me to fight. They never left me alone, and told me the best way to honor the dead is to live."
Oswald’s doctors told him about a new treatment that boosted his immune system’s ability to fight his cancer. Called pembrolizumab, at the time the immunotherapy had been used to treat people whose NSCLC was still growing despite prior treatment. But in the year before his diagnosis, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved pembrolizumab to treat patients like Oswald who were newly diagnosed and had no previous treatment.
"I had never heard of immunotherapy, but I thought I had nothing to lose, and I felt secure at NewYork-Presbyterian," he asserts. "Immunotherapy helps you fight the fight because it teaches your body to fight the cancer."
Oswald received his first dose while in the hospital, directed by medical oncologist Dr. Catherine Shu, who specializes in the care of people with lung cancer. NewYork-Presbyterian's cancer specialists include pioneers in immunotherapy who have exceptional experience using this treatment with the goal of extending patients' lives.
“At NewYork-Presbyterian I’m lucky to work with a tremendous team, so when someone like Oswald has to see a cardiologist or has to see a pulmonologist he’s able to see top-notch people,” says Dr. Shu
A week later, Oswald was back home and felt well enough to go to the gym. His doctors told him the immunotherapy would not cure his cancer but may help his body control it. At the time of his first follow-up scan, the tumor had already shrunk. He continued to come in for pembrolizumab treatment every two to three weeks and now receives a cycle of immunotherapy every nine to ten weeks.
“I’m also grateful for NYP for allowing us to give patients these treatments. At the time pembrolizumab had just been approved and we were really lucky to have been able to secure it for Oswald,” explains Dr. Shu.
Today there is no evidence of his lung cancer. He has no side effects from the pembrolizumab and can get his treatment in the morning and go to work the same day. Oswald was even able to don a Carnival costume and participate in Trinidad's festivities in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He looks forward to traveling to Asia and Morocco with his current partner, Jayy.
His experience with cancer has changed the way he lives his life. "Knowing you could lose something makes it important.," says Oswald. “I have a different perspective now. You have to live fully and you have to live completely."