Barry Wetzel, 79, has experienced highs and lows on his cancer journey, and he knows there are other patients out there going through the same thing. He’s heard good news and bad news but keeps going through a roller coaster ride of diagnosis, treatment, studies and immunotherapy, always with a positive attitude.
The avid golfer and Greensboro, North Carolina, resident was diagnosed with head and neck cancer in 2016 after noticing a lump on his neck he said was about the size of a small golf ball. His doctor gave him an antibiotic for an assumed glandular infection, but later called to see if there had been any change. When there wasn’t, she ordered a biopsy, and it showed Wetzel had cancer.
At the urging of his daughter, then working as an audiologist at UNC, Wetzel scheduled a second opinion consultation with UNC Lineberger’s Mark Weissler, MD, FACS, and his staff. After learning he had cancer, Wetzel arranged to have his cancer care done at UNC, including chemotherapy with Neil Hayes, MD, and radiation therapy with Bhisham Chera, MD, as part of a study.
“I did that for six weeks, and during those six weeks, I’ve got to tell you, if it weren’t for this little lady sitting beside me, I wouldn’t have made it,” Wetzel said of Susan, his wife of 47 years. “We went through blood clots, lymphedema, thrush, and I had a feeding tube. That was a pretty tough time. Probably more on her than me. I didn’t know what was going on, and she did.”
“He was kind of a mess,” Susan Wetzel said, kindly.
Immunotherapy as a path forward
In 2017, PET and CT scans revealed that six of Barry Wetzel’s 19 lymph nodes were cancerous. After surgery to remove them, Chera did genetic testing and discovered the cancerous lymph nodes had an unusual mutation, something the doctor said could be used to treat future patients.
“The thing we’re proud of is that we’ve been helping other people. I’m able to help the doctors with their continued search for better treatments,” Barry Wetzel said.
For months, the Wetzels were getting good news at Barry’s follow-up appointments, but then a PET scan showed affected lymph nodes in his chest, and they got the news they’d feared since his initial diagnosis. His metastatic cancer was incurable and inoperable.
“I hit my lowest point,” he said. “But it felt like it only took me five or 10 minutes to self-analyze, say ‘OK, what’s next?’” His doctor, UNC Lineberger’s Jared Weiss, MD, recommended that he start Keytruda, an immunotherapy. This was possibly Barry Wetzel’s only treatment option.
When he saw Weiss for a follow up appointment after starting the immunotherapy regimen, Barry Wetzel was surrounded by family, including his children and grandchildren. Happily, this time the news was positive.
“I loved Dr. Weiss’ approach,” Barry Wetzel said. “He said ‘I’m going to go work with sick people now, because this treatment is working.’”
Throughout 2018, he continued the immunotherapy every three weeks, and it was successful enough that Chera could perform radiation on the cancerous lymph nodes in his chest. Barry Wetzel is currently still on immunotherapy, and his condition will be re-evaluated in 2022. With tears in his eyes, he said he knows how lucky he is. “That staff and those doctors, and everybody at UNC, have been absolutely fantastic.”
Support near and far
The Wetzels had full confidence in the UNC Lineberger team, and they were also thrilled to have a support system on the homefront, as well.
“We have a strong faith in God, a church we really like, and good friends,” Susan Wetzel said. “I’m a bit of an introvert, so I started sending an email update, a ‘Barry update,’ with 92 people on it, because I had trouble talking about it to so many people who cared.”
Barry Wetzel’s golf friends and church friends reached out to them, offering to help with lawn care and driving him to appointments. Susan Wetzel shared Barry’s journey with her friends, and they told her he was on more prayer lists than they could count across the country.
“I didn’t realize how great and huge my community became,” he said.
Barry Wetzel said he’s learned a lot on his cancer journey, and ever the optimist, he said he is very appreciative of his time now and wants to spend it wisely. He and Susan recently celebrated her birthday and Mother’s Day, and the couple is grateful they have the opportunity to mark those days together.
“I’m still on the right side of the sod,” he said. “I do appreciate these things so much more than I did before, but when you’re told incurable, inoperable, it’s a jolt. But other than that, we have another lease on life; let’s enjoy it.”
“We try to live day by day and appreciate it. Each day is a gift from God. That’s how we look at it,” Susan Wetzel said. “He’s not ‘oh woe is me.’ His positive attitude was what helped him through. Forgetting how bad it really was, that’s good that it’s in the background, and I think the positive attitude was very powerful.”
‘Don’t give up’
Barry Wetzel shares that optimism when he can, and he often has friends with cancer come to him for advice, and he uses his own experiences to help them. He believes in the words of Jim Valvano: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
“Several friends have cancer and have been battling for years,” he said. “I just say to them ‘don’t give up.’ Something’s going to come along, and it’s going to be the answer to cure you or help you live another five, 10 or 20 years.”
“It’s a blessing to us to have him help other people,” Susan Wetzel said. “Cancer’s always changing, even from the first time he was diagnosed, he was changed. Don’t give up hope, and stay positive.”