Lung cancer patient: “The therapy is working. It’s keeping me alive.”

He was a non-smoker and when Thomas Stierwalt learned he had lung cancer, he did what came naturally – he began to read and research his diagnosis and treatment options.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes @tfender1@iuhealth.org

He is intrigued by the science of plants and Thomas Stierwalt says he’s fascinated by the treatments for cancer.

Stierwald grew up on a farm in Gosport, Ind. and attended Purdue University. While pursuing his undergrad degree Stierwalt took part in the ROTC and met a friend who introduced him to an Army research facility. It gave him the opportunity to follow his passion and obtain both masters and doctoral degrees in plant pathology and plant breeding.

But his heart was in farming so he eventually joined his father in the fields.

“We nearly starved to death,” he says laughing at the hard work. He and his wife, Joan married 53 years ago. Both natives of Gosport, they’ve known each other since she was in the fifth grade and he was in the eighth grade. They have two girls, a boy and six grandchildren.

After his stint with farming he took a job with an agricultural chemical company and eventually retired from Bayer, a life sciences company.

Stierwalt says he’s been healthy throughout his life. As a non-smoker he was stumped when he got the diagnosis of lung cancer in May of 2015. It’s estimated that 10-15 percent of lung cancers occur in non-smokers. According to the American Cancer Society some of the leading risks for non-smokers developing lung cancer is exposure to radon gas, secondhand smoke, and cancer causing agents such as asbestos and diesel exhaust, and air pollution.

“I had been working in the agricultural chemical industry for 30 years. In research and development we worked with a number of compounds. We protected ourselves but you still never know what you’re dealing with and how it can impact your health,” said Stierwalt.

“We began reading and researching to learn all we could,” added his wife.

The cancer was discovered when he developed pneumonia and fluid developed in his right lung. Under the care of IU Health oncologist Dr. Nasser Hanna Stierwalt completed several rounds of chemotherapy. When the chemotherapy was no longer effective, Steirwalt began taking an immune therapy drug.

“My oncologist says he knows of someone living six years on this treatment and I’m going on two,” said Steirwalt. “It’s been an interesting process learning about immune therapies that are targeted for specific diseases and it’s fascinating to learn there is hope. Cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence. There are no side effects. I feel great and it’s working.”