In 2010, Mary Elizabeth Williams, a young mother of two, was diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Although doctors were able to remove her tumor from her scalp with surgery, a year later the cancer returned, this time to her lungs and back.
When she started researching her diagnosis, she was dismayed at the odds—only 15-20% of stage 4 melanoma patients live beyond five years. Faced with those chances, Mary Elizabeth decided to take a risk. Her courage paid off.
She enrolled in a clinical trial testing a new combination of two immunotherapies that boost the immune response against cancer. Her doctor, CRI Scientific Advisory Council associate director Jedd D. Wolchok, M.D., Ph.D., explained the trial to her. It would combine ipilimumab—a new immunotherapy approved by the FDA in 2011 for treatment of melanoma—with an experimental immunotherapy called anti-PD-1. Both drugs aim to sustain the anti-cancer immune attack by blocking the immune system’s off switches.
After her first treatment with the new combination, the tumor on Mary Elizabeth’s back began to recede. The good news didn’t stop there. By January 2012, all of her tumors had disappeared. A year later, she is still free of cancer.
Mary Elizabeth’s story demonstrates the enormous potential of immunotherapy to transform cancer treatment as we know it. Just two years ago, patients with advanced melanoma had no real chance at effective treatments and longer lives. Today, that has changed.
The Cancer Research Institute continues to work to ensure that scientists around the world receive the funding they need to fuel the discoveries that save lives. Mary Elizabeth is just one example of the hope immunotherapy brings, not just to patients with melanoma, but to people will all types of cancer.
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon, and has chronicled her experience with cancer and as part of Dr. Wolchok’s clinical trial in a series of articles for the magazine. Read her story, “Cancer has a ‘game-changing’ moment,” at http://bit.ly/Salon-12-11-2012.