Immune to Cancer: The CRI Blog



Luc V’s Immunotherapy Story

Melanoma |  Diagnosed 2013

I think my brain is a very good pharmacy for my body.

Luc’s Story

By age 42, Luc Vautmans had built a very nice life for himself. He was married with three kids and had a great job working as an aeronautical engineer for both NASA and the European Space Agency. Then, without warning, cancer threatened to take that all away. In September 2013, Luc went to a doctor for a swollen lymph node in his neck. The doctor diagnosed him with stage 4 melanoma. CT scans showed that his body was riddled with tumors.

Facing a grim prognosis, Luc decided to enroll in a clinical trial of two immunotherapy drugs called ipilimumab (Yervoy®) and nivolumab, being conducted at University Hospital in Leuven in collaboration with Bristol Myers-Squibb. These drugs fall into a class of immunotherapies called checkpoint inhibitors. By “taking the brakes off” T cells, they enable a more powerful immune response against cancer.

While he has embraced immunotherapy, Luc has also created a “very big bucket list,” to make the most of however much time he has left. In the 7 months since he was first diagnosed, Luc has been skydiving, skiing, paragliding, sailing, and motorbike racing. As if that weren’t enough activity, Luc also decided to turn his battle with cancer into a life-saving opportunity for others. On May 4, 2014, Luc and his daughter Ran, 13, participated in the TD 5 Boro Bike Tour to raise money for the Cancer Research Institute (CRI). All told, Luc and Ran raised more than $11,000 for cancer immunotherapy research.

TheAnswertoCancer (TheA2C) spoke to Luc about his daredevil pursuits and his experience with the cancer immunotherapy clinical trial. 

Questions and Answers

How and when did you first learn you had cancer?

In 2006, they found a small melanoma on my ear. They removed it surgically with a certain safety margin. I regularly went to the hospital for checkups and everything was fine. After 6, 7 years, nothing had spread inside my body so we were very confident that the problem had been solved. And then, all of a sudden, in September 2013, I felt that the lymph nodes in my neck were swollen, so I went to the hospital. They started doing CT scans and then they found out that it was stage 4. It was in my lungs, liver, bladder, on both sides of my neck…I think in total on the CT scan I had about 40 tumors. I was in a lot of trouble at that point.

How did you learn about immunotherapy and why did you decide to do it?

I’m not a doctor, but I am a scientist, and can read a scientific paper. So I started reading about immunotherapy and that’s when I decided I would do this. If you only look at classical ways of treatment, 10 months is more or less what you get when you are diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. And I’m now at month 7 since September [2013] so I’m still on the good side of this story.

Well, it’s not scientific; the scientific thing I leave to the oncologists in the university. But on the side, I have the idea that your brain is capable of putting a lot of organic natural products in your body. I think my brain is a very good pharmacy for my body—in addition to what I am getting from Bristol Myers-Squibb.

What was treatment like? Did you have any side effects?

I don’t know what is working, but something is working and it’s working very well for me. I had some swollen lymph nodes in my neck area. In the beginning, they were quite big and on top of each other. I could already feel during the first week they were getting smaller. And then we had the scans. And if you compare the scans, the reduction was quite spectacular. Three or four times in a row, I had quite spectacular improvements. The most spectacular one was in my lungs.

Are there things that surprise you about the cancer experience?

I’m really hoping that I can beat the odds. To be very, very honest I have never been, let’s say, mainstream. Sometimes it was extraordinarily on the bad side and sometimes it was extraordinarily on the good side, but my life has never been mediocre. I’m hoping that I can, even though the odds are very bad against it, be one of these miraculous survivors. That’s my ambition.
There’s a saying in English: swing hard in case you hit. That’s my motto as well. I’m going to try to live life to the fullest with my family and all the sports I’m doing. And I’m going to swing hard and who knows, maybe I hit it and then it will be out of the ballpark. That’s the way I live, right now.

What would you want another patient to know about immunotherapy or about participating in a clinical trial?

I would really encourage anybody to do this, if you see how good I am. I see a lot of people in the clinic getting chemo. They lose their hair, they look really pale and weak, and they have far fewer tumors than I have. And they get these bad chemo treatments, which is I think not a very smart tool. It kills everything, the chemo—both good cells and bad cells. I’m not an expert, but I think that immunotherapy is a far sharper tool than chemo. That’s also why I’m doing this TD 5 Boro Bike Tour for Cancer Research Institute, so that they can keep on supporting research.

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