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Patient Story: Carol Engel

Published December 2020 | In Spring 2021 Issue

After her diagnosis, Carol Engel turned to the experts at the Monument Health John T. Vucurevich Cancer Care Institute. Working together, they’ve defied the odds against stage IV lung cancer.

Patient Story: Carol Engel Media

Carol Engel was born and raised in Rapid City. She enjoys working at Bear Country in the summer, admires Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, and loves talking to people; a tad too enthusiastically sometimes, she admits. Her personality is welcoming and passionate—she makes you feel like you’re old friends catching up rather than strangers meeting for the first time.

In February 2019, Carol attended a “Welcome to Medicare” preventive care visit at Monument Health. After reviewing her file, Dawn Utzman, a Family Nurse Practitioner, recommended Carol have a chest CT lung cancer screening. A CT scan and biopsy later, the diagnosis was determined to be stage IV lung cancer; doctors gave Carol six months to live. She says “You just feel so alone. But Dawn called me, and she said ‘Carol, you remember, you are the same person as you were yesterday.’” 

After reviewing her case with Mayo Clinic, Monument Health started Carol on immunotherapy. When her progress slowed, the team changed her to chemotherapy; but Carol says “I know my body, and I knew something wasn’t right.” She discussed it with her team, and they decided to return to immunotherapy. It turned out to be the right decision—her condition greatly improved. Dr. Than Than Aye, M.D., said “Carol’s case is amazing, she is the only case I’ve seen where brain lesions have disappeared without radiation.” By advocating for her care, Carol and her team worked together to achieve the best possible result. 

Also known as immunotherapy, are the newest types of medicines used to treat cancer. Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that helps your immune system detect and fight cancer. The treatment attacks specific “targets” on cancer cells without harming normal cells. Research using these targeted therapies is ongoing, a few agents are now available for use on patients not enrolled in a research trial. Immunotherapies can be used alone or in conjunction with chemotherapy treatments—the health care team at Monument Health, in consult with the Mayo Clinic experts determine the best course of care based on each individual patient’s needs. 

Carol will celebrate two years since her diagnosis in February—well past her original prognosis—which she credits to her team at Monument Health. Dr. Aye agrees with Carol: “Great care is team management; we cannot do it alone. Having the patient engaged, our nursing staff, the whole team has to be on the same page.” Carol’s care has been an incredible combination of caring teamwork, innovative medical practices and a positive patient attitude.

Moving forward, Carol hopes to join advocacy groups for cancer patients and survivors and volunteer her time talking to those dealing with cancer. Until then, she has one piece of advice for those dealing with cancer: “Take a deep breath. Don’t panic. Just be true to yourself and take care of yourself. You can do the research but it’s what you’ve got inside, the positive thinking that keeps you going.”

Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the United States and, by far, the leading cause of cancer deaths. According to the American Cancer Society, 228,820 Americans will be diagnosed in 2020.