Stage IV melanoma survivor: An immunotherapy clinical trial saved my life
In 2006, I didn’t have any of the typical signs of melanoma: just a small bump on the top of my head behind my hairline. After a biopsy determined it was cancerous, a surgical oncologist removed it, along with some adjacent lymph nodes on both sides of my neck. After that, I enjoyed three years of being cancer-free. I really thought I’d dodged a bullet, because the tumor was removed with clear margins and none of the nearby lymph nodes had any signs of cancer.
But three years later, a chest X-ray showed shadowing and spots on my lungs. The melanoma had spread. I had three separate lung surgeries over an 18-month period to remove new growths, but the cancer kept returning. By 2011, I had tumors on my lungs, pancreas and liver. One was also growing behind my heart. My oncologist told me there was nothing more he could do. Not being satisfied with that answer, I began to search for alternatives.
Why I participated in an immunotherapy clinical trial
At MD Anderson, I met with Dr. Patrick Hwu. After agreeing on a plan of action, he ordered tests to see if I qualified for any kind of targeted therapy. Unfortunately, I was not a good match, so the waiting and search for a viable option continued.
Then Dr. Hwu told me about a clinical trial involving a new combination of treatments: an immunotherapy vaccine involving the MAGE-A3 protein paired with IL-2. I would get both several times over the course of seven months during weeklong inpatient visits at MD Anderson, then receive just the vaccine at gradually longer intervals until July 2014.
While IL-2 has been around for years as a standalone treatment option, the MAGE-A3 vaccine was the key. In combination with the IL-2, it would trigger my immune system to “seek and destroy” the cancer cells, and continue to be effective for years afterwards. I didn’t have any other options. So, I decided to do it.
Clinical trials: a good opportunity
To remain on the clinical trial, my tumors had to be either stable or shrinking in every scan/MRI after my inpatient treatment. Fortunately, I turned out to be an “unusual responder,” or someone whose body does far better on a particular treatment than anyone expected. Eventually, my tumors disappeared entirely, and I’ve shown no evidence of disease since February 2014. If my scans are clear again in January, I’ll celebrate five years of being cancer-free on Valentine’s Day 2019.
When I think about the day in May 2011 that I was told nothing more could be done for me, the thought of being cancer-free for five years is pretty amazing. So, I encourage people to be open to the possibility of what clinical trials can do.
Just because something is not an approved therapy yet doesn’t mean it’s not going to work. If you qualify for a clinical trial and have done the proper research regarding what it entails, then it could be a good opportunity for a treatment that is not readily available. It may even give you a better chance of survival.