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New progress against melanoma with trial therapies

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Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, when melanoma is caught early, there’s a 5-year survival rate of about 97%. Once the cancer spreads to other organs, the survival rate drops to 15–20%.

Those were the odds Richard Anderson faced when his dermatologist told him he had melanoma. The cancer had already spread throughout his body. “I have these tumors at distant sites,” he says. “Everything I read says I don't have much time left.”

Richard was referred to Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), where he’s since been through several clinical trials of immunotherapy drugs. He says his body’s response to the therapies has been incredible.

“I’m figuring I’m about two years out from where I thought I’d be gone,” he says. “If you look at me, you wouldn’t know I was sick.”

These clinical trials are part of the ongoing melanoma research taking place at HCI. Sheri Holmen, PhD, is an investigator and co-director of HCI’s melanoma program. She says one of the biggest challenges in treating melanoma is the way it spreads to other organs in the body. But they have had some recent breakthroughs, “We've noticed there's one protein in particular that helps spread melanoma to the brain,” she says.

Dr. Holmen says clinical trials are essential to helping patients survive longer after a terminal cancer diagnosis. She says different combinations of therapies mean lots of options for patients. “There’s never a chance we’d give up,” she says. “There’s so much we can do with all the progress that’s been made.”

She says melanoma can develop from a mole on the skin, but not always. “It's a good idea to watch for any changes on your skin that you hadn't noticed before,” she says.

She adds that Utah has the highest per capita incidence of melanoma in the U.S. “Utahns need to be diligent about taking care of their skin,” she says. “We have a lot of people here who are at high risk for developing the disease, and if it's not caught early, it's very aggressive, and it can spread.”

Richard is grateful for the team he works with at HCI. He says he’s excited about the time he’s been given after such a serious diagnosis. He currently comes to HCI every three weeks for treatment. He says, “I think what we've had at HCI—the treatment, the care, the sensitivity-- has decreased a lot of the stress we would have had.”

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit www.huntsmancancer.org.

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