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Thea Michailaros — Lung Cancer Patient Story

Thea Michailaros

A lung cancer diagnosis completely blindsided Thea Michailaros, a healthy 70-year-old from Macungie, Pa., near Allentown. Diabetes was her only health problem and it was under control. “I’ve always been a very active person,” she says. “I swim at the Y every day, and we follow a Mediterranean diet.”

For Thea and her husband Demetrios, following the healthy Mediterranean diet comes naturally — both were born and raised in Greece. For the last 20 years, the couple has lived in their homeland six months of the year. “We have land, buildings, and a small winery producing a dry red wine, in the region where I grew up,” says Thea.

Maintaining the vineyard and winery is strenuous work, so staying healthy is important to the couple. “We see our family doctor for checkups regularly. We schedule a visit before leaving for Greece in each spring and when we get back in the fall,” says Thea.

A Devastating Diagnosis

At her November 2018 checkup, a chest x-ray showed a large shadow on Thea’s left lung. Further tests revealed a 2.5-inch tumor. The diagnosis — stage III non-small cell lung cancer — was a shock. “I never smoked, I don’t drink, and I had no symptoms or pain,” she says.

The Path to Wellness

On Dec. 18, 2018, surgeons at UPMC Harrisburg removed the tumor, part of her left lung, and 20 lymph nodes. The cancer hadn’t spread, but nine lymph nodes were positive. Follow-up treatment would be aggressive and include both chemotherapy and radiation. Chip Reninger, MD, a hematology/oncology specialist at UPMC Hillman in Camp Hill, Pa., lead Thea’s multidisciplinary cancer care team. “He made sure I was connected to the best doctors and the best care,” she says. “He is just a wonderful doctor.”

Under his watchful eye, she underwent four chemotherapy sessions. “Fortunately, I had no side effects from the chemo,” says Thea. “Even Dr. Reninger was surprised that I didn’t lose my hair.”

Thea’s daughter Eleni and son-in-law, Scott Michelitch, MD — a radiologist with Quantum Radiology (a UPMC affiliate) — live in Mechanicsburg, about a two-hour drive from Thea’s home in Allentown. Dr. Michelitch encouraged her to stay with them while undergoing six weeks of daily radiation treatments at nearby nearby UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at Rocco and Nancy Ortenzio Cancer Pavilion in Mechanicsburg. “That way I’d get the best possible treatment both at UPMC Hillman and at home from Eleni,” says Thea.

“It was wonderful to be with my daughter and son-in-law while getting radiation,” says Thea. “And I loved spending that time with my grandchildren.” Her only side effect — a burn on her esophagus — came near the end of treatment. It required her to eat soft foods until she healed and left Thea with an occasional dry cough.

Good News and a New Plan

After Dr. Reninger declared her cancer free in May 2019, Thea was determined to do whatever she could to stay that way. He suggested that she join a two-year clinical trial led by Kaihong Mi, MD, PhD, a UPMC Hillman medical oncologist and hematologist. Dr. Mi is testing a drug that researchers believe could help prevent a recurrence of lung cancer. Thea enrolled in the trial immediately.

With days of taking the new drug, Thea experienced some side effects. “Dr. Mi told me what those might be, so I knew that I was getting the real drug and not a placebo,” she says. Dr. Mi lowered the dosage, making Thea’s side effects more manageable.

UPMC Hillman — the region’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center — makes it easier for cancer patients like Thea to participate in groundbreaking clinical trials close to home that are unavailable to other patients.

Thea’s health has been closely monitored throughout the trial. Every three months, she has a CAT scan, MRIs of her lungs and head, and extensive bloodwork. A nurse calls her every week to ask how she’s feeling. “I’m in good hands with Dr. Mi and her team, she says. The clinical trial will end in October 2021.

A New Journey

Thea plans to join Demetrios in Greece in July, just in time for the fall grape harvest. Unable to make the trip last year, she’s eager to get back. “Growing grapes and making wine is a hobby we love. We give most of what we make to family, friends, and the people in our village. That makes us very happy — and this year will be an extra special one in our story, thanks to the doctors at UPMC.”

Thea's treatment and results may not be representative of similar cases.