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‘I am so thankful’

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Waiehu resident David Tabion is now in remission from an aggressive and rare type of lung cancer. He says he’s grateful for the compassionate care he received from his oncologist, Dr. Ellen Chuang, (right) and oncology nurse, Annette Tanaka (left). Photo courtesy David Tabion

Last spring, David Tabion came down with a cold. At first, he says nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but nearly four months later, he couldn’t shake his nagging cough.

“It wouldn’t go away,” he said.

One morning, Tabion woke up gasping for breath. “That’s when I knew something was really wrong,” he said.

Tabion’s wife rushed him to see his doctor, who ordered a computed tomography (CT) scan. It revealed something horrifying: A buildup of fluid in the space between his lungs and rib cage and signs of cancer in the right lower lobe of his lung. A few days later, on July 26, 2019, — the day before his 69th birthday — he underwent major lung surgery on Oahu.

When Tabion came out of surgery, he learned the cancer had spread, or metastasized, to the pleura (the two-layered membrane that covers the lungs). It was a particularly aggressive and rare type of cancer. So rare, in fact, Tabion says he was told he may be one of only a handful of people in the U.S. diagnosed with it. His surgeon removed as much of the cancer as possible, “But he couldn’t get it all,” he said.

While lung cancer patients are typically treated with chemotherapy, it is usually not very effective for Tabion’s type of cancer. But there was good news: A test showed that 100 percent of his cancer cells expressed a protein called PD-L1. The results led his medical team to believe he might respond well to a newer type of lung cancer treatment called immunotherapy, which reprograms a person’s own immune system to fight cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the treatment can boost or change how the immune system works so it can find and attack cancer cells.

Tabion started receiving immunotherapy at Kaiser Permanente’s Wailuku Medical Office eight months ago. Every three weeks, he’d go in for the treatment and see his oncologist, Dr. Ellen Chuang, and an oncology nurse, Annette Tanaka. By the third or fourth treatment, he says he began to feel itchy all over.

“When I told Dr. Chuang, she said that means it’s working . . . and I said ‘well, then I love to be itchy,’ “ he laughed.

After treatments, Tabion would undergo a CT scan. As the months passed, Tabion says his cancer started to slowly shrink. Then, on March 18, he was astonished to learn that it had vanished. “I’m now in remission,” he said. “Everyone says it’s a miracle. My family and friends are ecstatic.”

Tabion is also ecstatic, but more than anything, he said, “I am so thankful.” He says he’s grateful for the top-notch care he received and will be forever indebted to Chuang and Tanaka for their compassionate bedside manner.

“They are both amazing,” he said. “I want everyone to know that there are great doctors who can treat people here on Maui.”

Tabion said he may not be totally out of the woods yet and continues to live each day with purpose, gratitude and hope. In many medical centers around the world, cancer patients ring a bell to signify the beginning of a cancer-free life. Tabion says he’s determined to take part in the tradition.

“I want to ring that bell someday,” he said.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

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