One of the most difficult nights of Hank Baskett Sr.’s life was the night he told his wife he had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ll ever do in my life, to tell her that I probably had just been given a death sentence,” Hank says. “I sat right there in my living room and I said, ‘God’s got it. We’re going to make it through this.’”
That was 10 years ago, and Hank was true to his word. With the help of doctors at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, he has made it this far in his cancer journey.
“Beating it is great and yes, I’m alive, but the greatest thing I can take away from this is the people that God put in my life,” Hank says. “It’s just awesome.”
A life-changing journey to Colorado
Hank’s cancer journey began at a VA clinic in Amarillo, Texas. Hank, a former U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant who lives 100 miles west of Amarillo in Clovis, New Mexico, went to the VA to get checked out for a cough he’d had for a few months. After X-rays, an MRI, and a CT scan, the doctor told Hank there was cancer in his lungs, and the prognosis wasn’t good.
“On the drive home, I just gave it to God,” Hank says. “I thought, ‘Whatever will be is going to be.’”
Hank — father of former NFL wide receiver and “Kendra on Top” co-star Hank Baskett III — first received care from doctors in Los Angeles. It was at a charity golf tournament organized by his son to raise money for lung cancer research that he met Bonnie Addario, founder of the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation (now the Go2 Foundation for Lung Cancer). Worried that he wasn’t making progress in his treatment, Addario recommended that Hank visit CU Cancer Center member Ross Camidge, MD, PhD, director of thoracic oncology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
When Camidge first saw Hank nearly a decade ago, he realized that Hank’s doctors in California had gotten the diagnosis wrong. “It was understandable. It was just a very subtle thing that only an expert on the test that they had used would have spotted,” he says.
Though Hank had initially tested negative, when Camidge retested Hank’s tumor he found that Hank did in fact have something called an “ALK-positive” non-small cell lung cancer, which fortunately is an area of specialty for the CU Cancer Center. Camidge and other CU Cancer Center researchers have made discoveries related to optimal management of ALK and helped to develop a lot of the drugs in trials to help treat it.
“We were lucky,” Camidge says. “The original diagnostic test done in California was based on the percentage of cells that were positive, and the cut point was 15% or greater. His report from his previous doctor said that 87% of the cells were negative. I said, ‘Thirteen percent? That’s pretty close to 15%.’ So we redid the test, and suddenly the number was 16% or 17%. We reversed the diagnosis, we stopped his chemo, and we put him on a pill that had just been approved, in part from the data we had generated in a clinical trial we had been running.”
Camidge first put Hank on Crizotinib, an anti-cancer medication that suppresses the aberrant signaling coming from the abnormal ALK gene in cancer cells. When Hank developed a resistance to that drug after a few years, Camidge switched him to an experimental next-generation version of Crizotinib called Brigatinib. That drug would also eventually get licensed based on CU Cancer Center trial results. Hank still takes Brigatinib today.
“That abnormal ALK gene can become active and start shouting out instructions to the cancer cells,” Camidge says. “It’s almost like it creates a kind of dictator or megalomaniac within the cancer cells, shouting out the orders. The medication essentially removes the dictator from power — it silences the pro-cancer orders coming from that aberrant gene. And without those orders, the infrastructure sort of implodes.”
The timing was perfect, as the chemo was causing debilitating symptoms including swelling in the legs. By starting Hank on a targeted oral treatment, Camidge eased the side effects of the chemo at the same time he stopped the cancer in its tracks.
“It took him months to recover from the chemo, but fortunately we took the growth of the cancer off the table,” Camidge says. “We controlled the cancer with these pills and gave him enough time to recover, and he completely bounced back. Now we joke that we’ve kept him alive long enough that he’s getting old.”
Hank says he was grateful to be part of the clinical trial not just because it saved his life, but the lives of so many others once the medication was approved by the FDA.
“That’s what it’s all about, is helping the other people who came after me,” he says.
Hank, who 10 years later still takes one pill a day to control his cancer and makes regular trips from Clovis to the CU Cancer Center, remembers when he was first diagnosed by the VA doctor in Amarillo and given just six to eight months to live.
“I believe in enjoying life. I believe in living,” he says. “As long as you’ve got breath in your body, you should live. I can’t get upset over what man says, because man has been known to be wrong. I just said, ‘How dare you? You can’t tell me I only have so much time to live. Only my creator can do that.’”
Hank is grateful for Addario’s intervention and for the sequence of events that led him to Camidge and the CU Cancer Center.
“You talk about how God works, talk about miracles — we have them every day,” Hank says. “We just don’t realize it.”
The evolution of lung cancer care
Camidge says Hank’s treatment shows how far cancer care has come, particularly at the CU Cancer Center, which boasts one of the highest percentage of lung cancer patients recruited into clinical trials among major cancer center in the U.S.
“We don’t put people on just any trials — in fact, we turn most trials down,” Camidge says. “We try to pick the winners, using the trials to get our patients access to the best new treatments long before they are widely available.” Trials, like the one Hank participated in led to the FDA approval of both Crizotinib and Brigatinib, medicines that thousands of patients take to manage their non-small cell lung cancer.
“There have been multiple advances in the management of lung cancer,” Camidge says. “The big ones were not treating it as one disease and finding molecular subtypes, but even within that, there are nuances. Recognizing that keeping a close eye on the cancer such that if progression occurs you catch it at a very early stage of progression and you can be very aggressive about using radiation. We were among the pioneers in that.”
Camidge adds that thanks to these advanced approaches and treatments, doctors no longer look at lung cancer as an automatic death sentence.
“It’s no longer about, ‘Give me something, because I’m about to die from the cancer — the side effects don’t matter,’” he says. “Our goal is perfect control of cancer and perfect quality of life. Maybe we don’t always achieve that goal, but as we keep people alive for potentially decades now, that should be our priority. Hank’s a great example of that.”