Virtual visits made my cancer care easier
October 20, 2020
Stage IV melanoma survivor: An immunotherapy drug gave me my life back
BY Mark Zindler
In early 2019, I was almost seven years out from my original melanoma diagnosis. I’d been living cancer-free since having surgery and radiation therapy during the spring of 2012, and I was looking forward to enjoying retirement with my wife.
Then, during a regular follow-up visit at MD Anderson, I got a crushing blow: the cancer had returned. Scans revealed I had three new tumors. Two were in my right lung. But the third was growing in the left ventricle of my heart.
A biopsy showed that the tumors in my lungs were melanoma. So, it was logical to assume the third one was, as well. But it was too dangerous to biopsy the tumor in my heart, so I reviewed my options with my oncologist, Dr. Rodabe Amaria. She recommended an immunotherapy drug called nivolumab.
I took her advice and started getting weekly infusions of it. Within 10 months, I was cancer-free again.
Hope despite a stage IV diagnosis
When I first found out my cancer had returned, I thought I’d make it through the summer, maybe. After all, the cancer was already stage IV now, and it had invaded my heart.
Cancer doesn’t play fair. But Dr. Amaria gave me hope. The drug she was recommending was built for treating melanoma. And immunotherapy gives you an army of T cells to do it.
I started taking nivolumab in January 2019. By July, my scans showed the tumors were visibly shrinking. And by last November, my doctors could find no evidence of disease. I was blown away.
Immunotherapy made me one of the lucky ones
I still get monthly infusions of nivolumab. I’m on my 23rd dose right now. But I’ve been doing so well on it that Dr. Amaria says she’ll be taking me off the medication in October, three months earlier than originally planned. I’ve hardly had any side effects either -- just some fatigue and an itchy rash on my back for a couple of weeks.
I consider this a miracle. Because even after being diagnosed with stage IV cancer, here I am again, almost two years later, cancer-free. And I feel great.
My stage IV melanoma treatment
I grew up in Houston, so I knew MD Anderson had brilliant doctors. Still, the success of this treatment was completely unexpected.
I asked Dr. Amaria once what the chances were of the melanoma coming back after this. She said there was a 90% chance that it won’t. Even if it does, we could just pick up right where we left off. That sounded pretty good to me. So, I’ll take those odds.
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The success of this treatment was completely unexpected.