Better Than a Nobel Prize
On a sunny day in May 2016, my urologist called with the results of my precautionary CT scan. Spluttering with emotion, he explained that I had spots on my kidney, liver, lungs, pancreas, and brain. They were on my colon, along my spine, and in my lymph nodes.
It was metastatic melanoma. Stage 4 cancer that no surgery or chemotherapy could cure.
A month later, I was sitting in a small room with my wife, Elvira, and an IV in my arm. I was receiving my first infusion of the immunotherapy drugs, Yervoy and Opdivo, a combination treatment approved by the FDA only two years earlier. It was like they were pumping hope into my veins, reinforced by the support and love from my family and friends.
The immunotherapy drugs held great promise, but we had no idea whether or not I would qualify for them and, if I did, whether they would work. For unknown reasons, they worked for some patients and not for others. We were thrilled when I was approved for a regimen of four combination treatments followed by biweekly infusions of Opdivo.
I could tell that my epidermal tumors began to shrink almost immediately. The side effects hit after my third treatment, when I suddenly lost 30 pounds and was so nauseous that I couldn’t hold down water. I was being hydrated in the hospital when the oncologist, Dr. Kendle, asked Elvira and me if we wanted to go ahead with the fourth and final infusion. He said it could make all the difference.
We did not hesitate.
“Do it,” we said.
Dr. Kendle, by the way, had worked with James Allison, who along with Tasuku Honjo of Japan, was recently awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Their research led to the development of a groundbreaking new class of drugs, including Yervoy and Opdivo, which activate the immune system to attack cancer cells.
My next PET/CT scans and MRI revealed that my epidermal tumors had disappeared and there was greatly reduced melanoma on my organs. A precise radiation procedure seemed to have rid my brain of cancer as well. The immunotherapy was working.
When we began, we were told the treatment would last forever or until there was new cancer growth. Yesterday, however, after two years on Opdivo, Elvira and I met with Dr. Mark Abate, who has been the lead oncologist in my treatment, He looked at my latest scans and reviewed the assessments from the melanoma expert and neuro-oncologist at UCLA.
“Congratulations,” he said with a smile. “You are officially in remission. I’ll see you in three months for a check-up.”
Yes, Doctor. You will.
In the meantime, we’ll keep hoping that all cancer patients will soon be as lucky as me.
Bryant Wieneke is the author of Melanoma without a Cause: How the New Miracle Immunotherapy Drugs and My Own Immune System Helped Me Fight Stage 4 Cancer and a series of anti-war novels imagining a less violent world. All his writing is available through Amazon.com and his website, www.bryantwieneke.com.