Brian Williams and Hope
The online community for melanoma patients has been abuzz today about a report by Brian Williams on a patient who had a remarkable experience with melanoma.
She was being treated with Yervoy, one of the two new drugs approved last year for metastatic disease, but was not responding well. Her multiple tumors were growing and a particularly large one was pressing against her spine, causing severe pain.
Doctors decided to use radiation to shrink that one tumor in order to ease the pain. As expected, the large tumor shrank in response to the treatment. Rather unexpectedly, however, they saw shrinkage in all of the tumors—a truly remarkable result.
The thinking is this: the radiation damages tumor cells, causing them to shed bits and pieces into the bloodstream. Proteins from those damaged cells, called antigens, stimulate the immune system, which has already been activated by Yervoy. The immune system then attacks all of the tumors—even the ones that were not irradiated.
Frankly, I don’t know how to feel about this report. I am skeptical of the hyperbole that too often accompanies news coverage of cancer research. Just look at some of yesterday’s headlines:
· New Treatment Successfully Targets Tumors
· New Melanoma Treatment—A Turning Point Against Cancer?
· New Treatment Halts March of Melanoma
Little wonder that patients are excited, asking if this is the magic bullet for which they have waited.
I also know that good researchers--including Jedd Wolchok, M.D. of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the doctor in this study-- have a wealth of knowledge and experience that they bring to circumstances such as this one. These physicians are tireless in their efforts to understand how melanoma develops and spreads and grows – and how to stop it in its tracks. But I know that Dr. Wolchok, and any of the other physicians and researchers on MRF’s Scientific Advisory Committee will tell patients the same thing – one case does not make data. It gives us promise, hope, and a really good lead.
For these advances to be born out in a broader spectrum we need to see a rigorous study over time. We need to temper optimism with reality, inform hope with a genuine understanding of how the scientific process must work.
What do you think? Do stories like this give you the encouragement you need to stay positive in the face of melanoma? Do you think it distorts the picture and gives people a false sense that the hard work of curing melanoma is nearly done?