On July 12, 2012, two days after a vacation, Tom Vibert returned to his home in Greensboro, N.C., and went to see his primary care doctor for a routine physical exam. During the visit, Vibert mentioned that he was experiencing pain in his abdomen. After the doctor ordered a CT scan that revealed a lump in Vibert’s abdomen, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic colon cancer. A few days after the scan, Vibert met with a surgeon, who insisted they operate on the tumor as soon as possible. Vibert was first scheduled for a partial colectomy, which kept him in the hospital for eight days. “My next step was a chemical battle,” he recalled.
Vibert began treatment at Cone Health Cancer Center in Greensboro, receiving a round of chemotherapy every other week for 12 total treatment sessions. After each round, Vibert would maintain as much of his regular schedule as he could. “Chemo will eventually wear you down with side effects, and cancer tries to stop you from doing things. Eventually you must give it some ground,” Vibert said. “And that is fine, as long as you have a plan to take it back.” Vibert was also working every day as he continued through his treatment. “I enjoyed doing things that cancer hated me doing,” he explained. “I call it getting in cancer’s face. Doing things cancer tries to stop you from doing.” As treatment progressed, the tumor would shrink, but it would always come back. “So we moved on to radiation,” Vibert said.
Shortly after Vibert began radiation treatment, the tumor grew to his celiac plexus—a bundle of nerves in the upper abdomen—which caused him extreme pain. “It was terrible,” he said. “I could not eat or sleep. I was just trying to stay hydrated the best I could.” Vibert then lost a considerable amount of weight, reaching 128 pounds at his lightest. The pain medication he was prescribed caused him to give up a lot of things. He could no longer work, exercise, hydrate, or gain nutrition. “Everything I was contributing to my fight, I could not do,” Vibert said. He then obtained a second opinion at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., as well as a third opinion at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. The treatment plan he was prescribed at Cone Health was confirmed to be the best option available, but it was not working. “There really was no path forward until Duke Cancer Institute called with a clinical trial opportunity,” Vibert said.
Participating in a Clinical Trial
Prior to beginning his chemotherapy treatment, Vibert, on recommendation from his local oncologist, underwent genetic testing. He was told he has the microsatellite instability-high (MSI-H) biomarker in his tumor, which made him a suitable candidate for a 2014 clinical trial that was being conducted at Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, N.C. He was referred and enrolled into the clinical trial in October 2014.
Nivolumab, a medication the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved to treat lung cancer and melanoma, was being studied in the trial. “I was not enthusiastic at first, knowing my tumor type was not approved for this therapy. I had limited options, and I was all in on trying to beat this thing,” Vibert said. His initial skepticism regarding the potential success of the trial was quelled after completing his first infusion, which he described as miraculous and excruciating. “Sitting in that chair, that first infusion was the last pain I ever felt from the cancer,” Vibert recalled. After the infusion, he had his first meal in months and his pain disappeared overnight. This then led Vibert to request the discontinuation of his prescribed pain medication, but his doctors explained that he had to be weaned off slowly.
Vibert’s next CT scan in November revealed a significant reduction in the size of the tumor. “It shrunk more than any of the other treatments,” he said. Vibert received his last dose of nivolumab in November 2016, completing his participation in the clinical trial. Following, the Global Colon Cancer Association approached Vibert, wishing to use his story to promote the importance of genetic testing in oncology. “We did a video about my treatment journey and the importance of knowing your biomarker. It was translated into nine different languages to raise awareness on a global scale,” he recalls. As a result of the clinical trial, the FDA expanded nivolumab’s approval to include the treatment of certain colorectal cancers like Vibert’s. “I like to think I was a big part of that,” he shared. “I had two cousins pass from this hereditary colon cancer, and it’s good to see there is now something else to fight with against it.”
Advocating for Others
Vibert is determined to help other patients with cancer beat the disease. In doing so, he participates in the V Foundation's Victory Ride—a community initiative aimed at cycling to cure cancer. Since its inception in 2018, the Victory Ride has raised over one million dollars for cancer research, and 2022 is a milestone year for Vibert. “This is the fifth Victory Ride, and I am also five years NED (no evidence of disease). It also marks my tenth year from diagnosis, and that is a big number,” Vibert said.
Vibert is also involved in several cancer support groups and continues to speak out about the importance of early cancer screening and genetic testing. “Research provided me a chance. I want to help others get their chance as well.”
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