Nobel Prize-winning researcher: The future of immunotherapy for cancer treatment

For a long time, immunotherapy was considered nonsense by many people in mainstream cancer medicine. It had been tried for years, starting with a German scientist named Paul Ehrlich in 1906. There’d been a lot of other attempts since then, particularly in the 1960s and 1980s, but none of them really worked. Unfortunately, there was a lot of hype around those efforts each time. So, when they didn’t pan out, the field as a whole got a bad reputation. And as I started looking into immunotherapy research in the early 1990s, people kept telling me, “Don’t do this.” But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of ipilimumab, the drug I developed, in 2011 and the discovery of other checkpoint inhibitors by other researchers have proven that immunotherapy is a legitimate cancer treatment option. I think the Nobel Prize was the final seal of approval that this is real, that it’s not just some snake oil. And I believe that immunotherapy is going to continue to grow. Humanizing my immunotherapy research Being the first person on the planet to know something important is really cool. But so is meeting the people your discovery has helped. I don’t know the exact number of people who’ve benefitted from ipilimumab, but I do know there are a lot of folks alive today who wouldn’t be otherwise. The first time I met a patient who’d taken ipilimumab was in 2006. I’d been involved in clinical trials for it by then for several years. One day, I was in my office, and an oncologist I worked with very closely called and said, “Hey. Can...

How I laughed in the face of cancer

When I was 16 and undergoing treatment for a type of brain cancer called medulloblastoma, one of the best pieces of advice I got was from a nurse at MD Anderson. Early on, LeighAnna Hutchinson told me: “Find your laugh.” It was hard sometimes, but I took her advice. I looked for every opportunity I could to laugh at what was going on. And laughing in the face of cancer was what helped me get through some hard and unpleasant experiences. Finding humor in hair loss One way I found my laugh was by wearing different color wigs. I lost my hair within a few months of starting chemotherapy, so my mother and grandmother bought me a ton of wigs. I had so many colors: red, pink, blue, blonde. You name it, I had it. There were a bunch of different hairstyles, too. Some were long, and some were cute little bobs. Obviously, the wigs were purchased for me to wear. But whenever my grandmother or mom noticed I was feeling sad, she would put on one of the sillier ones. It never failed to make me smile.  Inside jokes about bodily functions and bathroom humor Bodily functions also became kind of funny. Sometimes during chemotherapy, I’d pass gas unexpectedly, right in the middle of a conversation. I’d usually say something like, “And that’s what I think about that.” The whole room always had a good laugh. I also wore a button on my shirt that read, “I pooped today,” because cancer patients get asked a lot if they’re having regular bowel movements or are constipated due to pain...

Why I chose MD Anderson for my uterine cancer treatment

My whole career in financial services has been about creating positive experiences for other people. But I never knew how different one hospital could be from another until I came to MD Anderson for uterine cancer treatment in December 2017. At MD Anderson, I learned how important every single person is to making a hospital great: from the parking lot attendant who greets you with a smile to the custodian who collects your trash to the server who brings you your food. Everyone at MD Anderson — no matter who it is — wants to make a difference. And that’s what makes it special. A meaningful personal connection shaped my uterine cancer treatment At first, I was quite resistant to the idea of seeking a second opinion at MD Anderson. My son was only 14 at the time, and I had a very busy career. I wanted to stay close to Dallas, so I could be near my family. And MD Anderson is five hours away. But when I first made eye contact with gynecologic oncologist Dr. Michaela Onstad, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. I already felt a connection to her because I’d learned through research that we both grew up in the same part of northern California. Then, during my first office visit, she noticed I looked scared. And instead of launching right into my diagnosis and treatment plan, she took the time to sit down next to me and say, “Let’s talk about what’s going on with you and why you’re here.” Her approach was completely different from the first oncologist I’d...

Mucosal melanoma survivor: After trying immunotherapy, I found success with my Plan B

When I was diagnosed with stage IV mucosal melanoma of the nasal cavity in October 2017, I got to MD Anderson as quickly as I could. My cancer was advanced and very rare, with mucosal melanoma making up only about 1% of all melanoma diagnoses a year. And I wanted to be treated at a place where they’d seen a lot of cases like mine before. At MD Anderson, I met with medical oncologist Dr. Hussein Tawbi, radiation oncologist Dr. B. Ashleigh Guadagnolo, and head and neck surgeon and skull base specialist Dr. Shirley Su. I was excited when they recommended immunotherapy. I thought it would give me the best results. Unfortunately, I developed side effects to immunotherapy pretty early on, so I had to stop taking it. But my doctors came up with an alternate treatment plan, and I’ve been cancer-free since March 2019. So even though immunotherapy didn’t work for me, MD Anderson did. My mucosal melanoma symptoms and diagnosis The only mucosal melanoma symptoms I had were a watery left eye and some nasal congestion. I thought they were from a sinus infection, so I went to a local ear, nose and throat doctor. He found a large growth on the left side of my sinuses and referred me to a head and neck surgeon. A few days later, I had a biopsy, which showed the growth was cancer. An MRI and a PET scan revealed the tumor was about the size of a golf ball and located behind my left eye. It was already invading the surrounding tissues, including my left tear duct. That made...

10-year survivor: My triple-negative breast cancer care led me to work at MD Anderson

I wasn’t working at MD Anderson yet when I learned that I had triple-negative breast cancer in July 2009. But after hearing about two family members’ positive experiences there and then becoming a patient myself, I really, really wanted to. The thing that drew me in most was MD Anderson’s Core Values: Caring, Integrity and Discovery. I saw them listed everywhere at MD Anderson, particularly in the elevators. They explained the importance of treating everyone with courtesy, kindness and respect. And that’s exactly what I got as a patient in MD Anderson’s Nellie B. Connally Breast Center. Why I came to MD Anderson It quickly became clear to me what sets MD Anderson apart. The first oncologist I’d seen had really scared me. She told me that if my cancer was at stage I or II, it was treatable; if it was at stage III, it might be treatable; and if it was already at stage IV, the best she could do was “keep me comfortable.” But I didn’t want to be kept comfortable. And I wasn’t going to just sit back and wait to die. Based on what I knew about MD Anderson from my family, that was, without a doubt, where I would go. My life depended on it. My cousin referred me to her radiation oncologist, Dr. Gregory Chronowski. He works at MD Anderson West Houston, which was at a different location at the time. I called for an appointment, and a last-minute cancellation allowed me to see him the very next day. He did such a thorough exam that I felt totally confident in my...