Kathy Sparks of Issaquah, Washington has been a nurse and nursing instructor for years. So when she went to the dermatologist to check on a blister on her forearm she knew it could be no big deal or something more serious. Unfortunately, it was more serious, much more – melanoma, the worst kind of skin cancer.
Sparks knew she was at risk, having fair skin and growing up on the Florida Gulf Coast. She spent long hours at the beach with no sunscreen. That was typical 40 years ago when she was a teenager. The diagnosis told her she was paying the price. That was in the beginning of 2006. Sparks had the melanoma surgically removed. But with melanoma, if it is at all advanced, it may have already spread. Two years later came proof that it had spread. And so began a journey of more surgery, chemo, side effects and, eventually in 2009 the news that she might not have long to live. Sparks saw herself on the brink of death and began putting her affairs in order. But she had one more chat with her melanoma specialist. Was there anything else to try? Not with huge side effects, but with real hope?
It turns out there was a new clinical trial for what could be an advance in melanoma – a new kind of drug to help the immune system fight back against the wily cancer cells. Sparks decided to enter a clinical trial with the chance to help herself and the greater chance to help others. It worked! While the immunotherapy treatment over many months wasn’t easy – she had itching and skin rashes and lots of oatmeal baths – the melanoma literally melted away. She was being pulled back from the brink of death.
Just last week – March 25, 2011 - the experimental medicine Sparks received, Yervoy or Ipilimumab, was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration. It may not work for everyone as well as it has for Sparks. And for some melanoma patients, it may not work at all, but it is a very positive advance – one of the only new drugs for this serious cancer in years. Fortunately more are coming. And the hope is more people despairing that death was near can have a new lease on life just like Sparks.