Sandy Pajak – Lung Cancer Patient Story

Image of Sandy.

Sandy Pajak, 62, was preparing for gallbladder surgery in early 2018 when a routine chest x-ray revealed a spot in the upper lobe of her right lung.

“I was very lucky they just happened to find the cancer,” says Sandy, a resident of Export, Pa.

But Sandy was surprised. She had no chest pain or coughing — just pain in her stomach area from the gallbladder.

She was immediately referred to a thoracic surgeon for a lung biopsy that confirmed the spot was a type of non-small cell lung cancer. Believing the tumor was confined to the lung, her surgeon removed Sandy’s upper right lobe in a lobectomy procedure at UPMC East.

Unfortunately, her surgery also revealed that the cancer had already spread outside the lung. She had stage 4 lung cancer.

Individualized Care Close to Home

The news wasn’t good. But Sandy wasn’t ready to call it quits. And while advanced cancers like hers are rarely cured, treatments can help manage them.

“I was scared. But I didn’t want to go yet,” says Sandy. “I had too much life left to live.”

Sandy began tackling her cancer with a fierce passion. She was referred to John Lech, DO, a hematologist and medical oncologist, who started her on intravenous (IV) chemotherapy at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, Monroeville. “I went once every three weeks for chemo,” says Sandy. “Thankfully, Monroeville is just 10 miles from my home.”

In January 2019, scans showed that Sandy’s cancer had spread to her right rib. That’s when her care team recommended another round of chemotherapy plus radiation, followed by nine months of IV immunotherapy. Sandy’s care continued to take place close to home. She received radiation treatment at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at UPMC East in Monroeville.

Although the cancer shrank during treatment, another tumor was found on Sandy’s left kidney in late 2019. This time, Sandy had a cryoablation procedure at UPMC East to freeze and kill the tumor.

Finding Hope with Targeted Clinical Trials

Unfortunately, four months later, a biopsy confirmed cancer had spread to Sandy’s lymph nodes. That’s when her care team recommended she begin a clinical trial called the Lung Cancer Master Protocol, developed for people whose advanced non-small cell lung cancer continues to grow after treatment.

It involved a combination of an antibody and pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy treatment. By blocking a protein called PD-1, pembrolizumab helps the body’s immune system attack cancer cells. Sandy was randomized for the experimental arm of the trial, which has since become the backbone of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved study.

Her clinical trial was led by Liza Villaruz, MD, a hematologist and medical oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside. Dr. Villaruz also is co-leader of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center’s Immunotherapy and Drug Development Center. Sandy was relieved she wouldn’t need to travel to Pittsburgh; she could receive her treatments locally, under the care of Dhaval R. Mehta, MD, a medical oncologist and hematologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, Monroeville.

“Participating in a clinical trial is a commitment, but I wanted to do something,” says Sandy. “I also wanted to help other cancer patients.”

She completed her clinical trial in June 2022 after two years of treatments. By then, most of her cancer had disappeared.

“It was almost gone. I remained nearly cancer free for two years,” says Sandy.

Managing Her Care

Sandy’s cancer remained stable for another 15 months. But in September 2023, it was growing again. She began another round of treatment with the same clinical trial, but follow-up scans showed the cancer continued to spread.

That’s when her team recommended a third clinical trial with another combination of drugs. That treatment was discontinued after she experienced a reaction to one of the drugs.

In February 2024, Sandy started a new clinical trial — her fourth — for patients with advanced lung cancer. This trial combines pembrolizumab with an antibody that targets two proteins involved in cancer growth. While she began her latest clinical trial with Dr. Villaruz at UPMC Hillman in Shadyside, she continued her treatments closer to home with Dr. Mehta at UPMC Hillman in Monroeville.

She praised her care team, including the doctors, clinical research coordinator, physician assistant, staff from the pharmacy, and especially the nurses for the care she received at that location — as well as the trust she instilled in them.

“The doctors at UPMC Hillman have been great. But I know all the nurses at UPMC Hillman in Monroeville,” says Sandy. “After six years of treatments, they’re like family. I didn’t want to leave them. Plus, I don’t have to fight parkway traffic or pay for parking.”

Helping Advance Cancer Treatments

“I’m surprised how good I feel,” says Sandy. “It makes me think maybe this is the one. I’ve had a few side effects, but nothing I can’t handle.”

Sandy says she’s grateful for the added years of life she’s gained from her involvement in cutting-edge clinical trials — access made possible through UPMC Hillman’s research and partnerships. She’s also pleased that pembrolizumab, one of the trial drugs she received — now known as KEYTRUDA® — has been approved for use.

“Being involved in clinical trials has been very important to me. I feel like I’m making a contribution and helping others,” says Sandy.

Throughout her journey, she has continued to have a positive attitude and has stayed active with her church. With the help and fellowship of her quilting group, Sandy also contributes handcrafted quilts for other patients. “We also make port pillows for car seatbelts to protect patient chemo ports,” says Sandy.

“I couldn’t have done any of this without the help of my husband and my son,” adds Sandy. “They are my biggest supporters, my cheerleaders, and my shoulders to cry on. My husband comes to every appointment and is at my side for all the news — good and bad — that I receive."

“I’m so grateful for my doctors, too. I know they are doing all they can for me,” she says. “I wouldn’t be alive without them. I’m still here because of my faith, my family, and my doctors. And I’m happy.”

Sandra’s treatment and results may not be representative of similar cases.