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One R.I. man’s battle with Stage 4 colon cancer

‘You’re going to die no matter what. So fight this thing and beat it.’

Five years ago, Ward Thrasher was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. Clinical trials have kept him alive and his quality of life high.

Ward Thrasher, 58, was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in July 2018.

In December 2022, he was the first person in the world to be given TriNKET, a new immunotherapy by clinical stage biotechnology company Dragonfly Therapeutics that attacks tumor cancers directly. It’s the fifth time he’s participated in a clinical trial.

The drug, according to Thrasher’s oncologist Dr. Howard P. Safran at The Miriam Hospital in Providence, was designed specifically to help patients who have few other therapeutic options — like Thrasher.

Thrasher agreed to speak to the Globe about his journey with cancer.

I have always loved spicy food. But when it started to bother me, I went to my doctor and said I was having some digestion problems. She asked me, “When was your last colonoscopy?” Well, I never had one before. There was problem number one.

I’m the guy that doesn’t go to the doctor unless something is falling off or the bleeding won’t stop. To be honest, I hadn’t been to the doctor for 12 years prior to going in for the digestion issues other than chronic hypertension. I’ve never had health issues in my life. Well, now I’m making up for it.

In July 2018, I woke up from my colonoscopy, and she told me I was the big winner. I had colon cancer. And it was Stage 4. People with this type of cancer have a 12 percent chance of making it to five years. And I have tumors in my colon, lungs, and liver.

Needless to say, I was crushed.

I spent a week dying, lying around, and I was just massively depressed. After I went through the funk of my initial diagnosis I woke up one morning and thought to myself, “You’re going to die no matter what. So fight this thing and beat it.”

I started treatment the following month.

But I have a unique genetic mutation where some treatments — meaning the standard of care — don’t work on me. Chemo just beat the living tar out of me. I pretty much had every textbook side effect that you’ve ever heard about.

My care team looked for something else and asked if I was willing to participate in a clinical trial. I’ve never been part of a trial or taken an experimental drug that’s still being developed before. Like everyone, I read the newspaper and see the story about the success about one experimental drug or another. But I also read the stories about the standard of care. So when presented with an alternative to basically having poison pumped into my body, I said “Let’s give these clinical trials a shot.”

I’m now into my fifth clinical trial — the Dragonfly drug.

This immunotherapy has not given me any side effects. It scared me to death when they presented me with the disclosures because the first big one was death. During my first administration, I had to be hospitalized overnight for observation just to make sure the drug didn’t kill me. It was really scary.

I’m here every week for five to six hours. The day starts with a blood draw and some of the standard lab tests that most cancer patients would have performed. Others are specific clinical tests that the sponsor requires. There’s about an hour there between draw and results. If everything is good, the pharmacy mixes my drugs. It takes about an hour. for the pharmacy to prep and the drugs to come to room temperature. I then go through the infusion, which runs about an hour and a half in most cases. Because of the way that this trial is supposed to work, I have to be observed for the next hour and a half.

With other trials, I’ve had a few side effects like diarrhea, rash, and just crushing fatigue. But those are fairly common. I mean, you get those things from too much ibuprofen. I don’t have any of those side effects with this trial.

My faith in my care team has gotten me through all of this.

You have to keep a positive attitude. There’s a saying, and it’s been attributed to many different cultures, that “A coward dies a thousand times. A brave man dies but once.”

I don’t have any children. My best friend texts me to see how I’m doing every morning. My girlfriend has been wonderful. We’ve been together for about 13 years. Half of that time was since my diagnosis. It’s not easy for either of us.

Since my diagnosis, my relationship with my own mortality has changed. My diet has changed. No more booze. No more sugar. What’s next? Well what’s next for anybody planning their life?

My girlfriend is in school. When she finishes her degree, we’ll be taking a tour of all the NASA sites. Houston, Huntsville, and of course, Florida. There’s a park in Arkansas called Diamond Mine State Park. It’s a crater of an extinct volcano. You go there and there’s diamonds and you pick them up, and they’re yours. She wants to go and we’ll hit that up along the way.

I’m thinking about going back to school after I finish paying for hers. I’m seriously thinking about going to med school. As a patient, I only saw the pain and sickness side of it before. It really wasn’t until this journey that I really decided I wanted to be involved in this and help people better and particularly in this ugly, nasty disease.

I have a pile of degrees already. I have a master’s in accounting, a master’s in information systems, and a law degree. I received my bachelor’s in audio engineering from Berklee College of Music. Why not add a medical degree? I’m a patient of Brown University. So we’ll see if I can get a high enough score on the MCATs.

People have heard it before: go to the doctor. Get your annual exams. Had I done so, I might have still been diagnosed with cancer, but it would have been caught before it reached Stage 4. If I had to do it all over, that’s a change I would make. If you have access to clinical trials, give serious consideration to getting involved. It’s the clinical trials where you’re going to find new and exciting things. Sometimes, that means finding out how to live life again. I’m a testament to that.

With this type of cancer, there is pretty low hope for remission. So the best that we’re hoping for is a good quality of life for as long as they can keep me alive. I’m approaching my five-year anniversary. Hey, I beat the odds. It’s been a journey I wouldn’t wish on anyone. There have been bumps along the way and really hard days. But you can see it. I don’t look sick. We’re seeing some shrinkage of the tumors. I have worked a full-time job throughout the last five years. My quality of life is good. That’s really all I can hope for.

I don’t know that I’m exceptionally brave. But I’m only going to die once. There’s far too much life to be lived. Far too many experiences to enjoy. I’ll take cancer along for the ride. But it’s not going to stop me.


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