Ted Popp Jr. was diagnosed with cancer three years before his father. The difference: Popp Sr. was in total remission after 18 weeks of treatment at MD Anderson, while Popp Jr. continues to fight metastatic uveal melanoma, a rare type of eye cancer that isn’t preventable, curable or treatable.
While melanoma’s biggest risk factor is exposure to UV light, uveal melanoma doesn’t appear UV-related, although most diagnosed have lighter skin and eyes. More than 99% of funding for melanoma supports skin melanoma, and none of the treatments developed have had a significant effect on uveal melanoma.
“Funding for uveal melanoma is practically nonexistent,” says Popp Sr. “Ted Jr. was convinced increased funding could make a difference.”
The father-son team partnered with Scott Woodman, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in Melanoma Medical Oncology. Through a letter writing campaign and personal contributions, they’ve donated $235,000 to his research.
“I was under the impression that to do anything meaningful you had to have millions of dollars,” says Popp Jr. “I learned that you can do impactful research at lower levels of support, and we’re already seeing the difference it’s making.”
Despite the challenges facing those with metastatic uveal melanoma, there’s hope. It's a “homogeneous” cancer, meaning mutations are similar. Homogeneous cancers are easier to treat because similar mechanisms drive tumors, so a therapy that intervenes has a widespread effect.
Popp Jr.’s life depends on the research he’s supporting. Although he’s in good health, he’s already survived three times longer than the average patient. The Popps’ aid has led to the discovery of new potential therapeutic targets.
“Techniques that permit us to analyze small sample sizes help us better understand the molecular nature of metastatic uveal melanoma,” Woodman says. “I’m hopeful that we’ll make strides in controlling and eliminating the disease and providing therapies that delay or eliminate its emergence.”
Yet, Popp Jr.’s disease has metastasized.
“My son’s passionate about increasing awareness and funding to make a difference, even if it doesn’t benefit him,” says Popp Sr. “Hopefully in the near term there could be some miraculous discovery. You can always hope.”