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Published on January 14, 2019

Deb Voigt and Heidi McKean, MD

Woman Fights Cancer With Help of Her Own Immune System

As a retired attorney, Deb Voigt knows about speaking in front of crowds, be they in court or elsewhere. About 18 months ago, changes in her voice led her to worry.

“I felt like a boy hitting puberty the way my voice was cracking,” said the 60-year-old woman from Sioux Falls. “I had no idea what was causing the change.”

Voigt learned that lung cancer tumors can affect more than just breathing. A series of tests revealed a mass in her lung that was pressing on nerves that controlled her vocal cords. That unusual symptom led her to get help.

“That’s the biggest thing I would tell everyone: if you feel something is wrong, you need to take action. Do something while there’s time,” she said.

Less-Obvious Signs of Illness

Lung cancer symptoms can include less-than-obvious signs like Voigt’s change in voice, but more often they include major weight loss, persistent cough that may produce blood as well as pain in the chest or neck. When found in time, some lung cancers can be cured, often through a combination of radiation and chemotherapy.

“With Deb, we were able to identify the composition of her mass and use her own immune system to treat the cancer,” said Heidi McKean, MD, Avera Medical Group medical oncologist. “The mass was pressing against some nerves as well as blood vessels. We had to address it in a way that would not affect those parts of her body – and she was a good fit for the use of Keytruda, an immunotherapy drug that would allow us to treat the tumor.”

With her mother, Mary Lou, at her side, Voigt began the treatment right away, and took infusions with the medication to stop the tumor’s growth. Her daughters, Alana, 15, and Natalie, 10, both stepped up, supporting their mom on her cancer journey. Over the course of 18 treatments, she and her doctor both saw results that were reassuring.

“The scan used to show a lit-up area indicating cancer, and now that area is much more dim and smaller,” Voigt said. “I’m feeling more strength, less pain, and now I have a much stronger voice. The support I have received from Dr. Heidi (McKean) is great. Christina Gant (CNP) and her nurse, Nicki, also make the visits more positive. They all have taken good care of me.”

Appreciation During Treatment

The experience has taught her to appreciate the little things in life, and to appreciate the facts when it comes to lung cancer.

“The medication helps to pull the mask off the cancer that’s hiding in there, and then my immune system can attack those cells,” she said. “When I got cancer, it was in some ways like having a child. You stop and realize so many things. You see the blue sky and you appreciate its color. You feel good when you get back to doing little things. I can do my own housework now, and that’s a gift.”

McKean said that since the mass was found right away, the outcome was much better.

“It’s a sneaky disease and can be hard to find, but with Deb we were able to get started with treatment right away. She responded well,” McKean said. “She’s able to live her life and enjoy it. The main mass has quieted and is smaller. We feel like we’re on the right track.”

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