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UNC Lineberger's Carrie Lee, MD, spoke at the “Understanding Melanoma: From Prevention to Treatment" seminar on May 14.
UNC Lineberger’s Carrie Lee, MD, spoke at the “Understanding Melanoma: From Prevention to Treatment” seminar on May 14.
UNC Lineberger's David Ollila, MD, spoke at a seminar for melanoma patients and their caregivers.
UNC Lineberger’s David Ollila, MD, spoke at a seminar for melanoma patients and their caregivers.

When Steve McKenzie was diagnosed with the most advanced form of melanoma in 2015, he was shocked and left wondering about his future. From what he thought would be a quick visit to the doctor to have bump on his back checked, he learned he had skin cancer that had spread to his lung, abdomen and brain.

His driver’s license was up for renewal, and he asked his doctor: “Do I need to bother?”

“I was pretty much ready to say ‘adios,’” he said.

McKenzie said his physician at the N.C. Cancer Hospital, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Stergios Moschos, MD, started him on a clinical trial for a combination immunotherapy regimen of ipilimumab and nivolumab. There was a dramatic reduction to the tumor in his brain, McKenzie said. And although he eventually had to discontinue both treatments due to the side effects, scans completed in early January 2016 showed he had no evidence of disease.

“Dr. Moschos said the percentage of people who have a complete response is extremely rare,” McKenzie said. “I’m a solid believer that faith and prayer played a huge role.”

McKenzie is now two-and-a-half years cancer-free. He still deals with side effects of the treatment, and his hope is that his case can help others have similar results, but with no side effects.

“(I’m) very thankful for the wonderful people at UNC, and the amazing things they did for me,” McKenzie said, adding that his experience made him want to give back, and he felt that his participation in clinical research helped fill the need to help others.

McKenzie shared his story as part of “Understanding Melanoma: From Prevention to Treatment,” a seminar held by UNC Lineberger and the Melanoma Research Foundation on May 14 for patients and caregivers at the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education in Chapel Hill. Physicians, researchers and staff spoke about advances in treatment and care for melanoma, research and prevention, as well as best practices to address the psychosocial aspects of care.

The agenda included a talk on advances in identifying which patients require complete surgical dissection of lymph nodes by UNC Lineberger’s David Ollila, MD, the James and Jesse Millis Distinguished Professor of Surgery and the co-director of the UNC Melanoma Program, and a presentation by UNC Lineberger’s Justin Yopp, PhD, assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine, on how to communicate about cancer with children or grandchildren.

UNC Lineberger’s Carrie Lee, MD, assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine Division of Hematology/Oncology, spoke about advances in the treatment and understanding of melanoma. The 2000s were a “new day,” Lee said, with advances made in the understanding of genetic changes in skin cancer. The discovery of a high rate of mutation in the BRAF gene paved the way for new targeted treatments, which were followed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approving several immunotherapies for advanced melanoma.

“We’ve helped a lot of people … have better outcomes for melanoma,” Lee said. “We’re not helping everybody. We need to continue to move the ball down the field.”

Lee said further research is needed to identify which patients will respond to immunotherapies, using either features of the cancer itself, such as mutations, or other aspects, and how characteristics of a patient’s immune system will predict response. She also highlighted the importance of research, whether it be clinical research, bench science, or the translational work that bridges the two.

“That’s really what keeps me at an academic center – to not only provide the best care, but also to have access to research. That is how we make melanoma (treatment) better.”