Back pain? Oh, it’s probably just muscular. Or maybe it’s stress-related. These were the thoughts that went through Jeff Julian’s mind in the middle of 2014. As swimming coach at Rose Bowl Aquatics and the University of Southern California, he knew that aches and pains sometimes come with life as a high-performing athlete.
But the pain got worse. In January 2015, after watching Jeff sit visibly uncomfortable through a restaurant dinner, his wife Kristine convinced him to see a doctor. At the hospital, an x-ray revealed a lump in Jeff’s lung. A needle biopsy followed and three days after his first doctor visit, Jeff received the diagnosis: lung cancer.
“Life became a process of trying to figure out what was really going on,” Jeff recalls. “I had a brain scan and a full-body PET scan. The brain scan was clear but the PET scan didn’t bring good news.”
Not only did Jeff have non-small cell lung cancer, he had stage IV disease with cancer identified in more than 25 places in his body. The doctors told him he had about six months to a year left to live.
Although Jeff considers himself an introvert, he decided to go public with his diagnosis. After breaking the news to his son Trenton, he announced his cancer on Facebook. He believes this is the right path for cancer patients to take. “You never know where support will come from,” Jeff says.
One of the biggest challenges was finding a doctor who would consider options beyond the standard of care – in Jeff’s case, chemotherapy. Doctors looked at Jeff and saw a man with a death sentence over his head. Despite their resistance, Jeff had his genomic profile done and armed with those results, was able to join a clinical trial involving treatment with two immunotherapy drugs.
Throughout his treatment, Kristine served as coach, advisor and main caregiver, ensuring he ate well and got enough rest. Team Jeff also included his sister Jaimi. “Together, they allowed me to concentrate on me, on my treatment, on getting better,” Jeff says gratefully.
The first week of the clinical trial was tough. The cancer seemed to be battling against the drugs, with all Jeff’s painful symptoms intensifying. But then, things changed. The night sweats disappeared. He had less pain. With each passing week, he felt better.
The 12-week scan showed why – his measurable cancer had been cut in half. As the trial progressed, the good news kept coming. Jeff’s cancer diminished by more than 90%.
“I went from someone who had cancer all over his body to someone who has three little nodules in his lungs that might not even be cancer, just calcifications,” he says.
Jeff’s focus has shifted from fighting disease to enjoying life. Like everyone else, his life has the usual ups and downs, but whenever they happen he thinks about what a privilege it is simply to be alive and feeling well.
“To everyone going through a tough time, I want to tell you to never give up hope,” Jeff says. “Hope is never a bad thing. Hope is the foundation on which we get back up and the belief that something better can come tomorrow.”