Our Strategy & Impact

Cancer Vaccine Trial Helped Ken Lippmann Put Melanoma's Fire Out

  • Ken, a lifetime volunteer firefighter
Ken Lippmann
North Salem, NY
“[The clinical trial] was a no-brainer; participating made sense for me personally, and I was glad to do something that might help the next fellow."

Ken Lippmann is your typical outdoorsman. The 62-year-old owner of a construction-supply company and a lifetime fire-department volunteer in North Salem, NY, Ken spends his free time playing golf, fishing, hunting, and horseback riding out on his South Dakota farm. But when his dermatologist noticed a white bump on his ear, a melanoma diagnosis seemed like a hitch on his lifestyle. He then enrolled in a phase I clinical trial funded by CRI and led by an associate director of its Scientific Advisory Council, Jedd D. Wolchok, M.D., Ph.D.

Ken shared with us why he decided to participate in a vaccine study, and how it has impacted his life since.

CRI: You seem to be an outdoors person.
Ken: I own a farm in South Dakota and work in the construction business here. When I’m not working, I have a schedule—October to January is horseback riding and hunting, January to April is fishing, and the rest of the year is golf.

CRI: How did you learn you had cancer?
Ken: I was on the back nine with a friend who happens to be a dermatologist. He noticed a white bump on my ear; I should have it removed, he said. I did, and during surgery they found cancer in a lymph node.

CRI: Did they remove the node?
Ken: They said there was no hurry, I could make an appointment in a few weeks, but I didn’t want to put this one off. I called Memorial Sloan-Kettering right away, sent my X-rays over; they operated immediately.  

CRI: And that’s how you got involved in the vaccine trial?
Ken: Yes, Dr. Wolchok at Memorial said I was a good candidate for his trial. It was a no-brainer; participating made sense for me personally, and I was glad to do something that might help the next fellow.

CRI: You had a brush with fame there, we understand.
Ken: Oh, right…the interview with the dog. Well, the vaccine Dr. Wolchok gave me was originally developed at The Donaldson-Atwood Cancer Clinic of the Animal Medical Center in New York—CRI helped to establish that clinic, too. It appears to have kept both a labrador retriever and me relapse-free, so a TV station put us on the news together. Some people think the dog is mine, but that’s not true; I never met him before, or since.

CRI: Is the story over, then?
Ken: Not a bit. Melanoma can hide out for a long time and suddenly reappear almost anywhere; the researchers will be giving me PET scans every six months for the next 12 years. That’s a big benefit of being involved in the project—it puts me in front of a doctor regularly.  

CRI: Has cancer changed your family life much?
Ken: I thought my wife Lois would go through the roof when I got melanoma; she’d warned me for years that my fair-skinned Irish genes made me a target. Well, she’s been terrific support; we’re closer than ever. This cancer does seem to run in families, though: we’re making sure our sons and grandkids go to the dermatologist.

CRI: How’s your golf game these days?
Ken: My handicap is 17; I still go riding and fishing and coach kids’ sports, too—the big difference is, Lois makes me wear sunscreen. We travel more these days. I used to think “I can do it later,” but that’s not necessarily true; both my parents died before they had a chance to enjoy life. To me, cancer has been a wake-up call.

CRI: You’ve also stayed on with the local fire department.
Ken: Absolutely. I’ve been a volunteer for over 30 years, and I don’t feel like hanging up my helmet for another 20.     

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