Stage IV melanoma survivor: Immunotherapy clinical trial gave me my life back

I was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma in December 2014, a year after I had a cancerous mole removed from my left calf. I thought I was done with it.

Then I felt a lump in my groin while shaving my legs when I was 20 weeks pregnant with my second child. A lymph node biopsy revealed the melanoma was back, but it appeared to be confined to that one area. Not wanting to hurt the baby, I deferred any additional scans or treatment until after I delivered. A PET scan taken the day my son was born showed the cancer was also in my liver, spine and other places. When I heard the results, my daughter was two and my newborn was only a week old.

I went to one of the larger hospital systems for treatment, but the chemotherapy they recommended didn’t work. All of my tumors were still growing. The doctors there told me to enjoy what time I had left. But having such a young family, I couldn’t accept that prognosis.

Instead, I found a clinical trial at MD Anderson that combined targeted therapy and immunotherapy. It saved my life.

Why I chose a clinical trial for my melanoma treatment

I knew I was in the right place at MD Anderson when I first met with my oncologist, Dr. Isabella Glitza. She started my appointment by simply listening. Then, she sketched out a list of all my options and explained each one, as well as its risks and benefits. My husband and I picked the one we thought was best: a clinical trial yielding tremendous results for people with my exact type of cancer.

Fortunately, I qualified to participate, so I enrolled in the clinical trial in March 2015. But I only made it through three of my four scheduled IV infusions of ipilimumab and nivolumab. My doctors thought the severe diarrhea I developed might be colitis, a known side effect of those drugs, so they took me off the trial.

I was devastated. I thought for sure I hadn’t received enough of the drugs for them to make a difference. But my first scans in May 2015 showed a 95% reduction in my tumors. And by November 2015, I showed no evidence of disease at all.

Cherishing the time I never thought I’d get

I’m not sure I can adequately express my reaction to finding out my cancer was gone. It’s hard to explain how grateful I feel just to be alive. I literally fell asleep smiling that night.

I didn’t go into the clinical trial hoping for a cure. I thought if I could just stretch out my time with my husband and children a little, that would be enough. So, when I was told I was essentially cancer-free, I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t even a possibility that had crossed my mind.

Since then, I’ve finished grad school, celebrated birthdays and holidays, and watched both of my kids perform in plays and gymnastics. Those are all things I never thought I’d have a chance to do. So the last four years have been amazing.

Could I be teaching the next Nobel Prize winner?

I’ve since learned that Nobel Prize winner and MD Anderson immunotherapy researcher Dr. Jim Allison is responsible (at least in part) for my survival. It was his research that led to the development of ipilimumab, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of my cancer just a few months after I left the clinical trial.

I like Dr. Allison’s story because he seems like such a normal guy. And anyone who comes from a small town and plays in a band can’t be bad, right? Sometimes, I look around my own small-town classroom and think, “Could one of you be the next Dr. Allison?”

That’s why I’ve started sharing his story with my students. I think it’s one that young people can really learn from: it’s about not giving up and believing in yourself. Dr. Allison trusted his gut with his research, and because of that, he’s saved many lives — including mine.

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