A "Living Cancer" exclusive by Kathryn Tam, WNYC.
In 2011, Mary Elizabeth Williams had a visibly large tumor on her back, a result of Stage IV melanoma that had metastasized into her lungs and soft tissue. Two weeks into a clinical trial, under the supervision of Dr. Jedd Wolchok, chief of the Melanoma and Immunotherapeutics Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, her tumor began to shrink.
“I know this sounds crazy,” she told Dr. Wolchock in his office, “but I think my tumor is smaller.”
She says he replied, “Well, that’s neat.”
Mary Elizabeth Williams, a senior staff writer for Salon.com, was one of the first participants in a clinical trial that is changing the landscape of cancer treatment. Known as “immunotherapy,” the treatment uses the body’s natural defense mechanism, its immune system, to help recognize and remember what a cancer cell looks like.
“The immune system delivers the ultimate form of personalized medicine,” Dr. Wolchok explained. For Williams, although her treatment was not “fun,” she says she had a much easier experience than patients who were going through chemotherapy or radiation.
“That’s one of the other big things that makes immunotherapy so special and so different,” Williams explained. “For many of us, we can live through treatment and not have a deterioration in the quality of our life while we’re doing it.”
Immunotherapy does not work on everyone, and the treatment’s effectiveness does depend on the type of cancer the patient has. Dr. Wolchok cited that 40% of participants saw a major regression in the tumors present at the beginning of the study, and some of the remaining 60% had a stabilization of the disease. The fact that Williams was relatively young and healthy was advantageous, especially early on in clinical trials when side-effects are unknown. After three months of immunotherapy treatment, she was cancer free.
“I think this is an example of why we should be hopeful about what research can deliver,” Dr. Wolchok said. But he also warned that we should not view this treatment as the panacea. “We shouldn’t be unrealistic and think that this is going to work for every single person the same way it worked for Mary Elizabeth. This is a very personalized type of situation.”
Hear from Mary Elizabeth Williams and Dr. Wolchok as they sit down with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate to discuss immunotherapy.
With the remission of cancer, there is always the fear of recurrence. But one of the major characteristics of immunotherapy is that it seems to last. “The response to immunotherapy tends to be durable for years,” Dr. Wolchok explained, “as opposed to other forms of anti-cancer therapy, which rarely have that form of durability.” Similar to the way that the immune system remembers the vaccines we get as infants, Dr. Wolchok hopes that Mary Elizabeth’s immune system will now be “constantly on guard” against melanoma.
For Williams, recurrence is no longer her biggest fear. While she has been out of the drug trial for a year and a half, she has promised to be a part of the study for the rest of her life — which she hopes will be for a “very, very long time.” She says she is very proud of being part of this study.
“My cancer is part of my life now,” Williams said, “and that is not past tense.”
This article was written exclusively for The Producers’ Blog by Kathryn Tam, WNYC. During the weeks of February 9th-13th and March 23rd-27th, 2015, WNYC and NPR will be airing “Living Cancer” a radio companion series to the film “Cancer: Emperor of All Maladies.” Explore the series and return to The Producers’ Blog throughout the week to see more exclusive content.