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Keene man finds hope in emerging cancer treatments

Union Leader Correspondent

November 20. 2017 11:22PM
Peter Rooney of Keene has turned his journey with stage 4 kidney cancer into the medical memoir “Immunopatient: The New Frontier of Curing Cancer.” (Meghan Pierce/Union Leader Correspondent)

KEENE -- A Keene man has turned his journey with stage 4 kidney cancer into the medical memoir, “Immunopatient: The New Frontier of Curing Cancer.”

The book by Peter Rooney, a journalist and former administrator at Amherst College, is being released Nov. 28.

Rooney, 53, was diagnosed in 2011. Kidney cancer has a way of circulating cancer cells throughout the body, Rooney said, rendering chemotherapy ineffective.

This is what led doctors to recommend Rooney for experimental immunotherapy treatment.

“It’s a little bit about my story as a cancer patient, and also one of the early patients to have a clinical trial that involved immunotherapy. Which is kind of emerging, depending on the type of cancer, as a first-line treatment that oncologists say may replace chemotherapy down the road,” Rooney said.

He received the immunotherapy in a clinical trial at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

“I was going every two weeks to get the treatment,” he said. “Your blood gets tested and then you wait an hour for the results. ... Then you get your infusion over an hour, hour-and-a-half, and then you go home.”

“Immunopatient” tells Rooney’s story, but it also describes the science behind this new type of treatment.

“Immunotherapy in this context works by taking the brakes off of the immune system so that certain types of white blood cells, called T cells, can track down and kill cancer cells,” he said.

The treatment was successful for Rooney for the first three years.

“I was in a clinical trial that combined two types of immunotherapy, nivolumab and ipilimumab. In about two months numerous tumors in my lungs and lymph nodes disappeared,” he said.

Rooney discontinued the immunotherapy after he encountered a crippling side effect — arthritis.

“Doctors have become really good at managing the side effects of chemo, but immunotherapy has its own side effects that need to be managed,” Rooney said. “In my case — pretty serious arthritis, which has to be treated with immune suppressants.”

He now takes arthritis medications, as well as a type of medication that strengthens bones. His most recent chest, lung and brain scans were clean.

“I have to find that balance, where I’m still fighting cancer, but not on immunotherapy anymore ... I think I’m a pretty good example of the promise as well as some of the pitfalls of immunotherapy,” Rooney said.

In his book, Rooney interviews pioneering immunologist Gordon Freeman, who may very well win the Nobel Prize one day for his work on immunotherapy, Rooney said.

“The immune system is a very complex system ... the metaphor he (Freeman) uses, is ‘Rube Goldberg on a drunken bender’ to just kind of give you an idea of how complicated and how crazy it is,” Rooney said.

Freeman is an immunology researcher at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, both in Boston.

“Anyone seeking to better understand immunotherapy will find this book to be compelling reading and a valuable roadmap,” Freeman says in a review of the book posted on

Cheshire Medical in Keene and Peterborough Community Hospital in Peterborough now offer immunotherapy treatments for cancer patients.

The message Rooney seeks to convey is that having stage 4 cancer is sometimes about “buying time” until the next new treatment comes along.

“It’s not necessarily going to work for everyone,” Rooney said of immunotherapy. “You really have to be careful not to over-hype things, but on the other hand, there’s reason to be very hopeful about it. So for people who are looking for hope and inspiration, it’s a very exciting time.”

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