Immunotherapy clinical trial gives four-time skin cancer survivor
As a child growing up in the 1950s, Dean Potter spent a great deal of time outdoors working on his family’s Rhode Island farm, playing at the beach and sailing on the bay. But he didn’t use sunscreen, because the product was still in its infancy back then.
“In those days, you put baby oil on to get the first good burn of the season, and then tanned the rest of the summer,” Dean says. “We didn’t know any better.”
So, when Dean was diagnosed with skin cancer 50 years later, it didn’t really come as a surprise. During a routine exam in 2009, his internist noticed a lesion on his chest that wasn’t healing. She told him to get it checked out. It turned out to be squamous cell carcinoma.
“I wasn’t shocked,” Dean says.
Squamous cell carcinoma returns
A dermatologist removed Dean’s lesion twice. And when a new lesion reappeared right above the original location just a year later, the dermatologist removed that, too. Dean remained cancer-free for the next four years. Then he started experiencing stiffness in his right shoulder.
“I played a lot of tennis at the time, so I assumed it was related to that,” Dean says. An X-ray ruled out a torn rotator cuff, so Dean’s orthopedist prescribed physical therapy. The exercises seemed to help, and his range of motion improved. But during Dean’s last session, the physical therapist noticed a lump in his right armpit and urged him to get it checked out.
“I’d been aware of it for several months, but it was just like the harmless fatty lump I had under my left arm, near the elbow,” Dean says. “I didn’t see any difference between that lump and the other one, so I thought it was nothing to be worried about.”
Still, Dean went to see his internist. A biopsy showed the new lump was squamous cell carcinoma. The original cancer had spread.
A second opinion at MD Anderson
Dean sought treatment in November 2014 at a hospital near his New York home. Surgeons there removed 22 lymph nodes, seven of which were cancerous. Dean’s doctors recommended radiation therapy, but no chemotherapy. That didn’t sound right to Dean, so his wife and daughter began researching other options. That’s when they found Merrill Kies, M.D. (now retired), at MD Anderson, and got a second opinion.
“Dr. Kies was insistent and consistent that we do both chemo and radiation,” Dean says. “He started consulting with my local oncologist, and eventually, my doctor agreed.”
Dean began two months of chemotherapy and radiation therapy near his home in January 2016. At his gastroenterologist’s urging, he also had a repeat colonoscopy. The polyps discovered during that procedure turned out to be cancerous as well.
Choosing an immunotherapy clinical trial
Because the polyps were so small, Dean’s local surgeon didn’t think it was necessary to remove them, but Kies was adamant that they come out. So Dean had surgery in New York on June 2, 2016. That’s when his surgeon found yet another tumor.
“This was all considered very unusual,” Dean says. “My doctor had never seen metastasis to that portion of the colon before.”
By this time, MD Anderson had become Dean’s most-trusted ally. So, when he had the opportunity to join a new immunotherapy clinical trial here under Aung Naing, M.D., he jumped at the chance. To qualify, Dean had to have an active tumor. Scans taken the next day showed one in his abdomen.
Dean started the Phase II clinical trial in August 2016 and has had no new tumors develop since then. The one in his abdomen has shrunk so much that it’s difficult to detect now.
So far, Dean hasn’t had any side effects from the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab, either. He went skiing twice this winter and has not stopped working. “I’m continuing to live my life,” he says. “My health is good, so I’m not backing off of anything.”
‘Leave your back yard’ for treatment
Today, both Dean and his wife, Shelley, encourage others to step out of their comfort zones in seeking cancer treatment.
“You can’t just go by what your local doctor tells you,” Shelley says. “A lot of local physicians are not up-to-date on new research and treatment options. So explore every avenue. Leave your backyard if you need to.”
“I would unequivocally recommend MD Anderson,” Dean adds. “It should be at the top of everyone’s list.”