MORRISTOWN, NJ – John Snyder, 57, is amongst the estimated one million who are living with melanoma as he continues his valiant fight against skin cancer that has already spanned over five years. Despite enduring a seemingly endless string of treatments that ranged from chemotherapy and radiotherapy to surgical procedures and experimental treatments, there had been little headway made against his advanced form of Stage IV melanoma.
That is, however, until he started an innovative treatment in a clinical trial with Dr. Eric Whitman at Morristown Medical Center that began in June 2018. Snyder, a Pennsylvania native, was being treated at the Hershey Medical Center when he found out about the opportunity to participate in a progressive clinical trial that had great promise. Since he had endured many failed attempts at treating his melanoma, this was looked at as his last shot at beating cancer.
Unlike previous treatments, this process involved a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, plus a new technique of leveraging the patients’ own white blood cells, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILS), all designed to help kill the patient’s cancer cells. A portion of the patient’s tumor is surgically removed and sent to a special lab through the research sponsor, Iovance Biotherapeutics, where the patient’s white blood cells that have recognized the cancer are extracted and stimulated with special substances in a sterile environment to make them more effective in fighting skin cancer.
“We know that these white blood cells know how to find his melanoma cancer,” explained Dr. Whitman, who has over two decades of experience specializing in treating patients with advanced skin cancer. “But they weren't able to kill the melanoma.”
That’s where the other components of the treatment come into play. In order for the newly-modified, hand selected white blood cells (TILS) to fight the cancer, Snyder’s existing white blood cells must be eliminated so that his immune system can be revitalized.
First, he underwent chemotherapy treatments to kill off most of the white blood cells in his bone marrow. Then, the TILs grown from his own tumor are infused intravenously, reconstituting his white blood cells with cells able to locate the cancer cells. The following day, Snyder is treated with a powerful immunotherapy, Interleukin-2, to enhance the ability of the new white blood cells to become as active as possible and fight his melanoma.
Nearly one full year after receiving this treatment, Snyder says that he “seems to be winning” his fight thanks largely to the help of Dr. Whitman.
“(The cancerous tumors) that were in me have shrunk or disappeared, and we haven’t seen anything new appearing,” suggested Snyder in a phone interview with TAP into Morristown. “My energy levels are improving and I’m starting to feel more like myself.”
The diagnosis has put a new perspective on Snyder’s life.
“I definitely feel that this has given me a second shot at life and this has brought me closer to God,” Snyder explained. “From the beginning this has brought me closer to Him and guiding me to the doctors. I’ve had prayers coming from every direction so there’s no doubt in my mind that that’s what was guiding things.”
The attitude, he says, is important in his fight.
“I’m not giving up. I was scared to death, but I wasn’t going to let it win. I have confidence that I can beat this.”
But it is the support system that stems largely from his wife, Cathy, where he claims the inspiration comes to fight.
“Her support over these years has meant everything to me,” said a grateful Snyder. “The three weeks that I was at the hospital, she was staying at a nearby hotel so that she could be by my side every day instead of maybe only coming on the weekends. She took time off from work and was there every day.”
Though Snyder admitted that this treatment extends beyond his life.
“If I can help this trial prove itself, I might be helping somebody else,” he claimed.
That help to somebody else may be coming in the near future as the therapy will “hopefully some day soon be approved by the FDA,” according to Dr. Whitman.
“The results that have been published have been really amazing,” said Dr. Whitman. “They are treating people like Mr. Snyder who have failed at all other treatments for their melanoma and may have given them another chance.”
Right now TIL-based therapy is experimental, and only available at a handful of locations throughout the world, including the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Morristown Medical Center. But if approved, it could become widely accepted and available. While early studies have shown that over 50% of patients have effectively responded to treatment, the current study may provide enough additional success stories to lead to FDA approval, making it a valuable therapy option for melanoma treatment.
“If this is successful, then eventually patients won’t have to travel far to get TIL-based therapy,” said Dr. Whitman. “There’s also hope that this type of treatment will some day work in other cancers, too.”
“Despite all the advancements that have been made over the years in treatment against melanoma skin cancer, it remains a huge public health threat,” Dr. Whitman added. “It seems to be a little worse in New Jersey, perhaps because we have such nice beaches and sun-filled recreation readily available here.”
While there is general excitement for this potential breakthrough in treatment against advanced melanoma, it still is the leading cause of cancer death in young women between the ages of 25-30 years’ old and skin cancer, overall, is the most common form of cancer in America with one in five estimated to develop the disease in their lifetime. Preventative care is still the best approach.
This should serve as a reminder for those beach goers this season to keep their health in mind to potentially avoid serious skin issues down the road.
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