Cancer rebel leaves terminal diagnosis in his rearview mirror

A rare super-survivor: Andy Bonnett was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer that nearly killed him 10 years ago. Now, the rulebook no longer applies as he celebrates 10 years of surviving and living a beautiful life.
November 29th, 2018

Andy Bonnett is a cancer rebel.

Or maybe he’s just a rebel who has told his cancer to take a hike.

A young man with long hair poses on his Harley with the red rocks of Sedona in the background.
Andy Bonnett loves taking road trips and lives in Sedona, Ariz., where he embraces beauty and healing. Photo by Jim Schnepf.

Cancer, by the way, is a word he rarely utters, even though Bonnett has fought off one of the most killer forms of it, Stage IV lung cancer, for a remarkable 10 years.

Bonnett’s too busy living to bother being sick.

Picture Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, minus the sideburns and with long, flowing hair. Trade the chopper motorcycle for a green Harley. Ditch New Orleans and the bad drug trips and instead picture Bonnett road-tripping his way to the soaring red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, where he spends his days soaking up organic food, natural spring water and the healing powers of this spiritual place.

Unlike the gents of Easy Rider, our hero gets a happy ending. It’s the cancer that implodes and lays motionless on a distant highway. Bonnett, on the other hand, gets to ride off into the sunset.

‘Sheer terror’

Bonnett’s ordeal began back in 2008. A Minnesotan, Bonnett loved the satisfaction and sweat of manual labor.

“I was part of the blue collar backbone of America. It wasn’t glamorous, but I was super proud.”

He delayed college until his late 20s when his studies brought him to the University of Denver. He had just graduated and was working his first post-college job as a construction manager for a high-end remodeling firm when the recession hit hard.

At night, Bonnett kept getting reflux. During the days, he sometimes struggled to breathe and had a persistent cough. He was only 33, so he didn’t think anything serious could be wrong. Maybe he was just stressed about the possibility of losing his job as the economy tanked.

Super-survivors – Once facing almost-certain death, Stage IV lung cancer patients now find some hope

  • Lung cancer accounts for 25 percent of all cancer deaths and is the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women.
  • Every year, lung cancer kills more people than prostate, pancreatic, breast and colon cancer combined.
  • As recently as 2014, only 2.6 percent of patients diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer were alive 5 years later, according to the National Cancer Database and Commission on Cancer.
  • By 2017, the 5-year-survival rate for malignant lung cancer that had spread to other parts of the body was 4 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.
  • Andy Bonnett is one of very few people in the world to survive 10 years with Stage IV lung cancer. But, he and others who have pioneered new treatments are charting an entirely new course.
  • Doctors hope lung cancer can eventually become like diabetes or asthma, a long-term, chronic condition that can be treated.
  • UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital is one of the top places in the world to receive treatment for lung cancer.

He went to see his doctor, who told him he’d need to go to the ER if the breathing problems persisted. Then he saw other doctors and tried physical therapy for the pain. Bonnett was supposed to get an MRI to help determine what was wrong, but started to feel better, so he put it off for a few months.

Just before Thanksgiving 10 years ago, he went in to see his doctor again. Pain gripped him in the chest, right behind his heart. An MRI showed fluid between his lungs and rib cage. His doctors tested the fluid and called Bonnett back in the next day.

A specialist met him. She told Bonnett he could sit.

“I remember the room. I told her I didn’t want to sit. She said, ‘I’m really sorry to tell you this, but you have lung cancer.’”

It was bad: non-small cell lung cancer that already had spread to Bonnett’s lymph nodes and the tissue around his lungs.

He was in shock and doesn’t remember anything the doctor said after that.

“It was sheer terror,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘why me?’”

He had barely smoked in his life. He was young, healthy and slender. All his life, he had been super active: running, hiking, skiing and snowboarding.

Devastated, Bonnett called his mom and his oldest friend.

“Hey buddy,” Bonnett said. “I’m not feeling well. I need help driving home.”

Vow: ‘I’m going to live the longest of anyone’

Bonnett went back to Minnesota and received extensive care. Doctors tried all the traditional therapies, but the outlook was bleak.

Bonnett asked how long anyone had ever lived with a similar diagnosis.

“Maybe seven years,” a doctor told him.

Andy Bonnett holds his arms up while hiking. A waterfall is in the background.
Andy Bonnett on a hike. Photo courtesy of Andy Bonnett.

Bonnett made a vow to himself: “I’m going to live the longest of anyone.”

That was a crazy concept at the time because the cancer was pretty close to killing Bonnett and later made its way to his brain.

But, he’s an optimist and a non-conformist, so he focused on living.

He ate clean. He never touched alcohol. Chemotherapy had left his body hypersensitive to chemicals, so he avoided bleach and anything else that could cause flare-ups.

He even went to Switzerland to try alternative therapies including intensive heat treatments – known as hyperthermia – that essentially give the body a fever to help jumpstart the immune system.

Bonnett was in Switzerland when a pivotal call came from a friend in Denver. She had seen a local TV news story about a woman with lung cancer who was receiving care at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. She was participating in a clinical trial for a new lung cancer medication. And it was working.

Bonnett emailed immediately. Then, he had to hustle. He needed to get tumor samples from Minnesota so the Colorado team could analyze his type of lung cancer.

The samples arrived in Colorado in December of 2009.

Then, on New Year’s Eve, Bonnett received a call from the lung cancer specialist who would end up saving his life: Dr. D. Ross Camidge.

headshot of Dr. Ross Camidge
Dr. Ross Camidge.

“You’re in,” Camidge said. “Your test results make you a candidate for the drug trial.”

Bonnett was stunned and overjoyed.

“It was one of the most amazing things that could happen. When you’re in that situation and you think you have no hope, then you find out there’s a cutting-edge cancer treatment. And it was right in Denver,” Bonnett said.

He flew back to the U.S. and had to flush out all the medications from previous treatments. Alone in a dark hospital room, Bonnett felt like he was on a knife-edge of hope and despair.

“It was the most excruciating pain I had ever felt in my life,” he said. “I thought I was going to die.”

Transformative treatments for a killer cancer

When Dr. Camidge saw Bonnett, he wasn’t sure that his patient would live long enough to get the treatments, so Camidge expedited the first dose.

“He was really unwell,” Camidge said. “His cancer had kicked up a notch. There was fluid around his heart.”

Researchers and doctors have made great gains in treating lung cancer in recent years and University of Colorado now ranks as one of the best places in the world for lung cancer treatments.

Only a year before Bonnett’s diagnosis, scientists in Japan had discovered particular molecular changes in some types of lung cancers. And doctors were beginning to use very specific targeted therapies to attack those cancers.

Bonnett’s cancer had a reactivation of what’s known as the ALK gene. It makes abnormal proteins, which, in turn, fuel cancer growth.

Exactly when Bonnett needed help, University of Colorado had become one of seven sites in the world to be testing an experimental drug for people with ALK abnormalities.

And doctors at the University of Colorado Cancer Center are aggressive in finding experimental therapies for patients. They put as many as 40 percent on clinic trials – 10 times the national average.

Lung cancer patients, like Bonnett, need all the help they can get. Each year, lung cancer kills more people than prostate, pancreatic, breast and colon cancer combined.

At an academic medical center, patients benefit from highly specialized experts, who are testing the newest treatments.

“I’m a thoracic medical oncologist. Our surgeons, our pathologists, our radiologists and radiation oncologists also focus very specifically on lung cancer. That specialization is key,” Camidge said.

The first drug Camidge tried on Bonnett is called crizotinib. When it works, the drug suffocates the abnormal proteins and prevents them from producing cancer cells.

The results were stunning.

“He thought he was going to die. Then, the next day, he texted me and he was out jogging,” Camidge recalled with a laugh. “I was thrilled for him.”

‘On my third miracle’

“It was absolutely crazy. I was feeling so good,” Bonnett said.

He was able to dive back into life and soon started running again.

Bonnett also joined a group for young cancer survivors called First Descents. The non-profit promotes healing through adventure. Thanks to the First Descents, Bonnett got to learn to surf in North Carolina, then took surfing trips to Bali and Mexico. He also learned to kayak in Glacier National Park in Montana, then took a second kayaking trip on Oregon’s Rogue River.

Kayakers in red and yellow kayaks paddle on a lake in Montana with the peaks of Glacier National Park in the backround.
Andy Bonnett learned to kayak in Glacier National Park through a program for young adults with cancer called First Descents. Photo courtesy of First Descents.

“Those were some of the most empowering and powerful experiences of my life,” Bonnett said. “The trips reignited the fires of hope and not feeling alone. The camaraderie was amazing.”

Young cancer survivors often spend a lot of time asking, “Why me?” Bonnett said.

Meeting other young people helped Bonnett move beyond sorrow and anger to embracing life.

“They gave us t-shirts that said ‘Out Living It.’ There were so many meanings. We were out living and we were outliving cancer.”

A man surfing.
Andy Bonnett surfing. Photo courtesy of First Descents.

Mentors taught the young people to appreciate each moment.

“We’d look at the water. It’s always flowing. It’s always moving. It’s never the same. Water is life. The river is the teacher, the life giver,” Bonnett said.

His adventures sparked joy and a little light-hearted envy in Camidge, who admits to trying surfing himself on one vacation, and promptly spilling into the ocean after about 10 seconds on the board.

“If you’re doing your job right as an oncologist, you really should be jealous of your patients’ lives, and that’s exactly what’s going on with Andy,” Camidge said.

“He shows what’s possible with personalized therapy,” Camidge said. “It allows us to keep the cancer under control. Andy is pushing past 10 years. He’s literally at the cutting edge. There’s no rulebook to look at. We have to write it each day ourselves, constantly trying to extend how well he’s done.”

While crizotinib was only available through clinical trials at first, the drug worked so well that by 2011, the FDA approved it to treat ALK-positive lung cancer. The drug is not a cure, Camidge said, but it helps doctors keep cancer under control.

“My philosophy is that we’re turning lung cancer into a long-term condition that we can treat, like asthma or diabetes,” Camidge said.

Patients’ bodies sometimes adapt to drugs like crizotinib. And, a couple of years after Bonnett’s initial treatments, that happened with him. So, Camidge shifted Bonnett to another medication, then another, first brigatimib, then lorlatinib. With each change, Bonnett has helped researchers learn how cancer adapts and how doctors can adapt too.

Each innovation has kept Bonnett alive.

“I’m on my third miracle,” he said. “I love Dr. Camidge.”

A life of beauty and healing

The better Bonnett felt, the more he wanted to embrace life by living in a beautiful place.

A lifelong fan of road tripping, he calculates that he has logged more than 500,000 miles over the years. Bonnett found his way in 2013 to the red-rock country of Sedona, Arizona. He instantly felt at home.

“It’s the vibe of the people there. They’re not career-driven. They’re life-driven,” Bonnett said. “It’s a very sacred place. There are a lot of healers. It’s serene and peaceful. It was a move for a healthy lifestyle.”

On an ideal day, he wakes up, drinks a lot of water and meditates. After a healthy breakfast, he heads out to Oak Creek Canyon, about 15 minutes from his home. On the way, he takes in views of Thunder Mountain and Coffee Pot Rock, a formation that looks like an old percolator sitting on a campfire.

Andy Bonnett meditating near his home in Sedona, Arizona.
Andy Bonnett meditating near his home in Sedona, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Andy Bonnett.

In the canyon, Bonnett hops from rock to rock, then finds one where he sits still and uses Reiki, a Japanese healing method, to open himself up to good health.

Bonnett found that when he stopped fighting cancer, and instead opened himself up to healing, he improved.

“The harder I fought it, the worse I felt. When I stopped fighting it and submitted to a new path, the healing journey began,” Bonnett said.

“It was a monumental turning point and very poignant,” Bonnett said. “I became at peace with a very gentle healing process and left the negativity of a battle mindset behind. Many good people around me helped me come to this decision.”

He’s incredibly grateful to all of the supporters who have kept him alive.

“I never could have made it without them,” Bonnett said.

He also thinks patients play a big part in their own healing and believes in the yin and yang of alternative and traditional medicine. Bonnett’s convinced that natural healing methods keep him as healthy as possible so he can most efficiently absorb cutting-edge medical treatments.

He drinks at least a gallon of high quality water a day, gets regular massages and has an infrared sauna that he uses daily to help break up and sweat out toxins.

He also tends to his spiritual life through a non-denominational community in Sedona and gets regular counseling.

“It takes a lot of discipline to be healthy,” said Bonnett, who is confident about his prospects.

“The stuff is going to work forever,” said Bonnett, now 43. “I feel so good. I feel like a normal person, except when I remind myself that I need to rest.”

Along with focusing on healing, Bonnett works part-time in various jobs, including a stint when he learned to build traditional Native-American drums.

Over the summer, he took a major road trip, towing his Harley and living out of a 14-foot cargo trailer, which holds the motorcycle on one side and a fold-down bed on the other.

“It’s great. It’s got a skylight and a fan. I can be on the road for months.”

We see a man's back as he looks out over a turquoise lake in the Canadian Rockies.
Andy Bonnett taking in a view of the Canadian Rockies during a recent road trip. Photo courtesy of Andy Bonnett.

He traveled from Arizona to Montana and Canada then west to Washington, and south through California back home to Arizona, logging more than 13,000 miles over four months.

A friend had told him how beautiful the Canadian Rockies were, so he visited Banff National Park and got to camp at stunning Lake Louise. Later, as Bonnett wound south along the California coast, he often camped on coastal cliffs, where waves crashed loudly ashore all night long, reminding Bonnett of the ocean’s power and life-giving force.

During the day, as he rode his motorcycle on curving ribbons of pavement, Bonnett felt completely at peace.

“There’s nothing else there. It’s just you and the bike and the road. It’s very calming,” Bonnett said. “You’re just taking in the elements. You can smell the flowers. You can smell the rain coming off the road and you can feel the different temperatures. It’s the ultimate driving experience. There are no distractions – no radio, no GPS.”

Now the cancer rebel is back home in Sedona, where’s he’s counting his blessings.

“I’m the luckiest, unlucky person I know,” Bonnett said.

“I’m actually very grateful for my experiences. Otherwise, I would have gone down the path that everyone else takes,” he said. “This has caused me to take a different path – one I didn’t choose. But it has led to a deeper, more meaningful life. I consider it a gift.”

These days, Bonnett’s goal is quite simple.

“I’m always reaching for more,” he said. “I want a cure.”