Bob Wilkes didn't think he had many options when he was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma in early 2012. Born and raised in South Carolina, he sought treatment there, and despite unfavorable long-term statistics, he and his wife, Pam, were positive after his successful surgery.
But in 2014, Wilkes learned the cancer had returned and metastasized to both lungs. His daughter was recently engaged, and he was told he may not live until her wedding.
Doctors advised him to begin lung cancer treatment immediately.
"Luckily, my sister-in-law is a physician," he says. "She told us firmly, 'You're going to MD Anderson."
Days later, the Wilkeses met with Patrick Hwu, M.D., division head, Cancer Medicine.
"We could tell immediately he was compassionate, caring and totally devoted to his patients," says Wilkes. "The whole experience was unlike anything we had ever seen. We observed cancer patients smiling, positive and happy to be at MD Anderson. You just don't expect to see that at a cancer center."
Immunotherapy, which activates the immune system to help fight cancer, has been successful in treating certain types of melanoma. Unfortunately, due to his autoimmune diseases, Wilkes was not a candidate for this therapy.
"I've had psoriasis since I was 17 and arthritis for the past 12 years," he says. "When you hear about a hot new treatment on the market, but you cannot have it, the air quickly goes out of your sails."
"Immunotherapy treatments activate the body's entire immune system, and they can exacerbate pre-existing autoimmune diseases," says Hwu. "More cancer research needs to be done to know how to safely administer immunotherapy to patients with autoimmune conditions."
Wilkes underwent two thoracotomies with lung resections, one on each lung. He recovered in time to walk his daughter down the aisle in October 2014.
Throughout this journey, the Wilkeses wondered, "Why not? Why not find a way for autoimmune patients to receive lifesaving cancer treatments? Why not find a way to cure autoimmune diseases and cancer?"
The couple created the Wilkes Family Cancer Autoimmune Research Fund and donated $1 million to support Hwu's research into immunotherapies for autoimmune patients.
"We are highly impressed with Dr. Hwu and his top-caliber research team," says Wilkes. "There is an opportunity here ― not only to cure cancer, but also to perhaps cure other autoimmune diseases like arthritis. We are hoping that other cancer patients with autoimmune diseases will read this article and join us in this fight."