In the fall of 2019, John Brazeau’s back pain got so bad that it interfered with his ability to engage in the two hobbies he loved most in his retirement on Cape Cod: golfing and clamming. Despite keeping up with physical therapy exercises meant to relieve the pain, it wasn’t diminishing.
Then in 2020, Brazeau also noticed that his vision was becoming blurry. When new glasses didn’t resolve this issue, his ophthalmologist ordered a brain MRI. It revealed masses in Brazeau’s brain, and the same ophthalmologist recommended that he head straight to Dana-Farber.
The resulting evaluation revealed that Brazeau’s vision and back issues were linked. Imaging revealed a mass in his kidney so large that it was putting pressure on his spine and causing his sciatica. Through a biopsy, physicians determined that this was kidney cancer that had metastasized to Brazeau’s brain.
“This can happen with kidney cancers because oftentimes there aren’t many symptoms until the cancer has spread,” says Wenxin “Vincent” Xu, MD, the Dana-Farber genitourinary oncologist overseeing Brazeau’s treatment.
Facing a stage four kidney cancer diagnosis, Brazeau’s began to “think the worst.” But once he spoke with Dana-Farber genitourinary oncologists about treatment with immunotherapy, Brazeau regained hope.
“I told the doctors, ‘Let’s do this, you’ve got me,’” he remembers.
Turning the immune system into a cancer treatment
Brazeau began treatment with two immunotherapies, ipilimumab and nivolumab, which had just been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2019 in part due to the work of investigators and clinicians at Dana-Farber. These new therapies harness the immune system to attack cancer cells.
“Your immune system is, essentially, made more sensitive and more likely to attack tumors,” Xu explains.
Almost immediately after beginning treatment, Brazeau noticed relief from his back pain as the mass in his kidney shrunk and took pressure off the nerves in his spine. Surgeons eventually removed the kidney and some of the lymph nodes affected by the cancer. Dana-Farber radiation oncologist Ayal Aizer, MD, MHS, also administered a course of radiation to Brazeau’s brain to stop the tumor’s growth.
Since January 2022, Brazeau’s cancer has been stable and he’s off treatment. Given the nature of his disease, he will continue to be monitored with regular imaging. But aside from some “scanxiety,” Brazeau enjoys his visits and catching up with the providers that helped him through one of the darkest moments of his life.
“Visiting Dana-Farber, I feel very secure,” he says. “They’re like my second family. They are genuinely wonderful people.”
Getting back to what matters
After a long career as a civil engineer that took him around the country and the world, and intense cancer treatment, Brazeau has settled down to a quiet retirement in Yarmouth Port with his wife of 49 years, Susan. Thanks to the success of his treatment, he has returned to golfing and clamming. Digging through the muck for those tasty mollusks is back-breaking work, but Brazeau no longer struggles with the sciatica he did before his treatment. Free from that pain, he’s also back to fishing and gardening.
“This is what we hope for every one of our patients,” Xu says. “John has not let his diagnosis define him.”