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May 11, 2023

Dolph Lundgren, who played Ivan Drago in 'Rocky IV,' reveals 8-year cancer battle

The actor credited a second opinion – and a treatment commonly used for lung cancer – with extending his life

Kidney cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer, with more than 81,000 new cases diagnosed annually in the United States. 

In most kidney cancer cases, surgery to remove the tumors is the first treatment, the Mayo Clinic says. But patients battling recurrent or advanced kidney cancer often require additional therapies. 

That was the case for Dolph Lundgren, the 65-year-old actor known for his role as Ivan Drago in the "Rocky IV" and "Creed II." In an interview with Graham Bensinger, Lundgren revealed he had been privately battling cancer for the last eight years.

Lundgren was diagnosed with a kidney cancer in 2015 and underwent surgery to remove a tumor, he said. He underwent yearly scans for five years; he was fine until 2020, when what he thought was acid reflux turned out to be additional tumors. 

"In 2020, I was back in Sweden and had some kind of acid reflux," Lundgren told Bensinger. "So I did an MRI, and they found that there were a few more tumors around that area."

Lundgren had six tumors removed during surgery, he said. But that was not the end of his cancer battle; another tumor was found on his liver, and it was too big to remove. Lundgren underwent a form of systematic therapy that targets specific proteins and genes within the cancer cells, preventing them from spreading. 

The actor said his doctor told him he should start prioritizing time with his family; at one point, he was told he only had two or three years to live. 

 "You kind of look at your life and go, 'I've had a great life,'" Lundgren said. "I've had a freaking great life. I've lived like five lifetimes in one already with everything I've done."

Still, Lundgren sought a second opinion. That doctor found a mutation that possibly could be treated by using a medication off-label, Lundgren said. This new mutation-targeted therapy shrunk the size of his tumor incrementally over time. 

"2022 was basically watching these medications do their thing and finally things had shrunk by about 90%," Lundgren said. "Now I'm in the process of taking out the remaining scar tissue of these tumors."

What is mutation-targeted cancer therapy? 

Targeted therapy is a cancer treatment that allows doctors to treat cancer cells without harming healthy cells, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It focuses on the genetic changes that transform healthy cells into cancerous ones. After testing for the genetic changes responsible for cancer growth, doctors identify specific treatments to kill cancer cells or prevent their growth. 

The two most common targeted therapies are monoclonal antibodies and small-molecule drugs. Monoclonal antibodies are lab-created antibodies that are infused into the immune system through an IV. They are designed to look for cancer cells and get rid of them. Small-molecule drugs attach to specific portions of cancer cells, either killing them or preventing their growth. 

These targeted therapies can treat several types of cancers, including blood, brain, bone, soft tissue, breast, digestive system, head, neck, lung, reproductive system, skin, thyroid and urinary system cancers. 

Lundgren received a treatment commonly used for lung cancer patients, his oncologist, Dr. Alexandra Drakaki, told via People Magazine. 

What happens during the treatment?

The mutation-targeted treatment is administered through a pill or an IV. Depending on the patient, the therapy is done daily, weekly or monthly. Patients undergo X-rays, CT scans and blood work while getting the treatment to ensure it works.

What are the side effects and success rate of mutation-targeted therapy? 

Side effects of targeted therapy include diarrhea, hair loss, nail color change, damage to the heart muscle, increased enzymes in the liver, dry skin, high blood pressure, and problems with wounds healing and blood clotting, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

The success varies from patient to patient, and depending on the cancer type and stage of disease. But the treatment is becoming more common. Some people with cancer are receiving mutation-targeted therapy in addition to other cancer treatments, like chemotherapy. 

Lundgren credits it with extending his life.

"You just appreciate, you know, having been lucky enough to be alive and appreciate every moment there is," Lundgren said.

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