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Speaking With Your Oncologist: The Importance of Building Trust and Open Dialogue

June 20, 2019

On June 19, 2019, Brendan Connors and his oncologist, Michael Postow, M.D., of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), reunited for a special Cancer Immunotherapy Month webinar and discussed the experience of pioneering an immunotherapy clinical trial for melanoma.

Brendan was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in November 2010, after surgery for a precancerous mole biopsied some months before. Following his diagnosis, Brendan underwent two separate immunotherapy clinical trials. The first one took place at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and involved infusions of his own immune cells. After that trial ended, Brendan had the opportunity to participate in a second clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and became one of the first people to be treated with checkpoint immunotherapy for melanoma. Dr. Postow was one of the lead physicians on the trial and a vital part of Brendan’s care team.

Having known each other for eight years, Brendan and Dr. Postow now greet each other as old friends who have the pleasure and good fortune of seeing each other a few times a year.

Dr. Postow reflected on the first time he met Brendan, describing him as “an adventurer and a pioneer,” acknowledging that it took “a lot of courage for Brendan and for any of our patients to participate in clinical trials.” He recalled that in 2011, “it was a very exciting time in melanoma treatment.” Ipilimumab (Yervoy®) had received FDA approval as a treatment for melanoma earlier that year, and Brendan was participating in the first-in-human clinical trial combining ipilimumab (Yervoy®) with nivolumab (Opdivo®). Dr. Postow and Brendan agreed that “it was quite a medical adventure…at the time.”

Being an adventurer, however, doesn’t mean that Brendan had no fears going into the clinical trial. Brendan explained that maintaining an open dialogue about the entire process with Dr. Postow helped him address some of his initial fears. When asked what advice he would give to those considering immunotherapy clinical trials, Brendan instructed, “ask the questions you don’t want to know the answers to, and ask the questions you want to know the answers to. There are no bad questions.”

Communication and trust between Dr. Postow and Brendan was crucial throughout Brendan’s treatment. Brendan emphasized that maintaining his normal everyday life by staying active and traveling was important when considering treatment options. He recalled that Dr. Postow was supportive and respectful of his priorities. Dr. Postow underscored, “you can be a much better physician and you can make better medical decisions when you know someone personally. This is not just all about science, but about knowing people as human beings.”

Brendan Connors in Patagonia
Brendan Connors in Patagonia.

Brendan’s participation in the trial has helped to make immunotherapy accessible to other patients, as the FDA approved the combination of ipilimumab and nivolumab for subsets of patients with advanced melanoma in 2018.

Today, Brendan has been off treatment for over five years. He is enjoying his life in New York City and adventures with his wife around the world. You can read more about his story on the CRI website.

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