Saturday, April 16, 2011

Great Things Are Happening

“Great things are happening!”
I heard those words back in October, 2010.  My brother, Jeff, was in his second month after being diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma which had metastasized to his brain and lungs.  Jeff had a unique form of melanoma, leptomeningeal disease, which spreads inside the fluid cavities and spinal cord.  There really wasn’t much that could be done, and he passed away a month later.
Those words above were spoken to me by his doctor, Patrick Hwu, M.D., Department Chair, Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, TX.  Dr. Hwu called me from Texas while my brother was visiting, and to catch up on old times.  You see, Pat is an old high school buddy and worked with me as a lifeguard for a number of summers.  Yep, he and I sat in the sun for hours at a time, usually covered in nothing but baby oil and iodine.  It’s ironic that he’s now considered one of the leading tumor immunologists in the country.  When he heard of my brother’s condition, he jumped right in to help out.  But we all fear it was just too late.
When I talked to Pat, we obviously discussed my brother’s condition at the time.  I was hopeful for some miracle, as was Pat.  But at the same time, we both knew the prognosis of three months was probably close to the mark.  But Pat shared a couple of encouraging words.  First…”It takes just finding that one cell.”  Yes, a shot in the dark and a needle in a haystack, but that’s the hope every time radiation and chemo is involved…to find that one cell and kill it.  But it was the other words I think about more today.
“Great things are happening!”
At first, I thought this was just a kind statement from a caring friend to give me a bit more hope.  Sure, he knew about what was going on in research more than I, but were great things REALLY happening?
A few weeks ago, the FDA announced the approval of Yervoy as a treatment towards Stage III and Stage IV melanoma patients.  The drug will be used to treat melanoma patients whose cancer has spread to other parts of the body.  It is the first approved drug that has extended the lives of patients with advanced melanoma.
Last week, another medicine, Sylatron, was approved for Stage III patients…those found to have metastatic disease that has reached the lymph nodes.  While the test study showed no increased survival rate, patients taking Sylatron remained relapse-free for an average of nine months longer than patients not taking the drug.  This is a definite improvement and the first new drug for Stage III patients since 1995.
Today, researchers at Yale University announced that a blood test could be used to predict the risk of cancer spreading, or metastasizing, in people who have early-stage cancer.  Being able to use a blood test to predict the risk of metastasis in people with melanoma would be cheaper than the current method of monitoring, which includes periodic imaging tests, physical examinations and blood tests, the researchers said.
 It seems every week, or even every day, there is news about advances towards finding a cure or better treatment against melanoma.  The best fight against melanoma is awareness and prevention, but in the medical battle field, Pat was right…”great things are happening.”

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