NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Malignant melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer causing more than 10,000 deaths a year.
Once it spreads, fewer than one in ten patients survive, but a new therapy is changing those numbers dramatically and saving countless lives.
As CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez explained melanoma is actually very curable when it’s caught early, but it also spreads very quickly even when it’s a small mole — that’s when it turns deadly.
Now, a new class of drugs called immunotherapies is revolutionizing the treatment of advanced melanoma.
Cindy Van Lunen had good reason to think she was going to die when the melanoma on her shoulder spread to her lungs.
“I started making plans to die and decided that there were things that I really wanted to do and people I wanted to see,” she said.
Her doctor at the NYU Permlutter Cancer Center knew that survival stats for her stage of cancer were grim.
“Most patients would survive only about six months because we had therapies that were just ineffective,” Dr. Anna Pavlick said.
Dr. Pavlick had helped run some groundbreaking clinical trials on advanced melanoma patients. They sued a combination of two breakthrough drugs that unleash the body’s own immune system, turning it into a cancer killer.
“They get the body to recognize the cancer as being something they need to attack and so it takes the, the brakes off the immune system and then the immune system will go after it,” Dr. Pavlick explained.
Grisha ryder’s melanoma started as a bleeding mole 8 years ago has since spread to his lung and thigh.
“I was begging for one month, two months, three months at least. I have to see my kids, I have something you know,” he said.
Grisha is getting the now FDA approved combination of Yervoyand Opdivo while he still has a couple of treatments to go, things appear to be getting better.
“All the spreads are gone, and I had another tumor in my left thigh. It’s gone after, after the first treatment,” he said.
As for Van Lunun, she’s finished with her treatments and recently got some good news.
“They told me I’m cancer free. It’s a miracle. It’s really a miracle, and seeing my first grand-daughter, who I never thought I’d see,” she said.
Yervoy and Opdivo were FDA approved for melanoma 5 years and 2 years ago respectively. The combination does much better than either alone and that led to approval of the combination earlier this year.
It doesn’t help every melanoma, but more than half of them are responding, and some are cancer free for years.