Melanoma News at ASCO 2017: Combination Treatments


There are many hopes that combining immune checkpoint inhibitor drugs, or combining them with drugs of other types (immunotherapy, targeted therapy, or chemotherapy) is the future of treatment for many kinds of cancer. Literally hundreds of clinical trials are actively exploring these combinations, and melanoma is the cancer for which trials of this type abound. Last month, the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago featured just a few presentations in this area, apparently because it is too early to report results from the many ongoing trials with drug combinations. Continue reading…


Metastatic Melanoma: Not Quite Curable…But Getting There


By 2050, the number of deaths due to malignant melanoma in the U.S. could be three times lower than peak levels reached before 1960. Researchers presented the data behind this prediction at the 2017 European Cancer Congress in January.

It is unclear how much of this anticipated decline in deaths can be attributed to the availability of new, effective treatments. However, it is obvious that much-increased awareness of sunlight exposure as the single factor most responsible for the development of skin melanoma has contributed to lower incidence of the disease.

In any case, the armament of treatments available for metastatic melanoma is currently such that this diagnosis has transformed from being almost universally fatal (even just a few years ago) into a being largely treatable. Since 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved eight new drugs for melanoma. Continue reading…


Super Patient: Peter Fortenbaugh Faces the Uncertainty of Pioneering Melanoma Treatment


In spring of 2014, Peter Fortenbaugh noticed what appeared to be a tick that had bitten his lower calf. “It turned out not to be a tick, but it didn’t really go away,” he says.

The spot began to grow and bulge, and in October, Peter showed it to his primary care doctor, who referred him to a dermatologist to remove it. At the time, Peter recalls, it did not occur to him that the growth could be serious.

“I was actually very concerned about skin cancer because I spent a lot of time out in the sun sailing,” Peter says. “I put on a tremendous amount of sunscreen and protection, but never on my legs…I never connected the dots.”

However, a biopsy of the growth came back positive for melanoma. Peter, who lives in Palo Alto, California, with his wife and three children, immediately reached out to several doctors in the San Francisco Bay Area, and all had the same advice: “Take it out, take a biopsy.” Continue reading…


Testing for Tumor Mutations: Liquid Biopsy Versus Traditional Biopsy


Liquid biopsies, virtually unknown even a year or two ago, are becoming common tools in precision diagnostics for cancer. Here, I will try to explain some of the more important differences between liquid and “traditional” tumor biopsies.

Biopsies of solid tumors (e.g., lung, breast, or brain tumors) involve surgically removing a small part of a tumor and sending it to pathology lab. In the last few years, doctors have also started to send some tumor samples to special service labs that analyze tumor DNA for the presence of cancer-related mutations.

By definition, regular biopsies can be intrusive and are sometimes associated with side effects, such as bleeding or infection. However, they provide some really essential information; i.e., the histology and grade of the tumor and other tumor characteristics necessary to determine the best choice of treatment. For lung cancer, for example, a biopsy determines the type of tumor—adenocarcinoma, squamous cancer, small-cell lung cancer, or another, less common type. For breast cancer, a routine test will determine if the tumor expresses estrogen, progesterone receptors, and a protein called HER2. These tests are critically important in guiding treatment choices. If mutational analysis of cancer-related genes is also performed (which doesn’t always happen, unfortunately), it may guide treatment with targeted drugs. Continue reading…


Melanoma: New Drugs and New Challenges (Part 2 of 2)


Editor’s note: This is part 2 of a 2-part post on the latest research in melanoma. To learn about research into drug combinations for melanoma that may work better than single drugs, check out Melanoma: New Drugs and New Challenges (Part 1 of 2).

As always, the more new treatments become available in melanoma, the more new challenges arise. With eight new drugs approved for melanoma in the last five years, oncologists may sometimes face the difficult choice of what drugs to choose for a patient’s first-line treatment. Immune checkpoint drugs sometimes cause serious side effects, but progress is being made on how to treat these and also how to treat patients with pre-existing autoimmune conditions. New approaches are needed in efforts to prevent recurrence of melanomas diagnosed at earlier stages of disease progression. These and other challenges are discussed below. Continue reading…


Melanoma: New Drugs and New Challenges (Part 1 of 2)


New targeted and immunotherapy drugs have changed the diagnosis of metastatic melanoma from a death sentence into a disease that can potentially be managed and even cured. Nevertheless, these new drugs do not work in all patients, or they may stop working after a transient response. This post (part one of two) will describe ongoing efforts to find drug combinations with higher efficacy than single drugs and decipher the mechanisms underlying drug resistance. Continue reading…


Clinical Trial Versus Standard Protocol: Why and How to Enroll in a Trial


My job at Cancer Commons is to help cancer patients better understand and make decisions about their treatment. Through our Ask Cancer Commons service, I also strive to inform patients about new drugs in trials that they can discuss with their oncologists. Sometimes, I explain the rationale behind a patient’s current or upcoming treatment, and sometimes I try to convince patients to actually get treated, rather than hope that a vegetarian diet and herbal supplements will cure their metastatic disease. Continue reading…


Super Patient: Our Writer Tells Her Own Cancer Story—And Learns How Powerful That Is


Fifteen years ago, my husband looked at me and said, “What’s that?” Somehow we had both missed a bump the size—and roughly the color—of a pencil eraser on the tip of my nose. But suddenly it was all I could see.

Me: “Is it something bad?”

My husband: “You need to see a dermatologist.” Continue reading…


Super Patient: Diane Milne Gives Other Cancer Patients the Tools that Helped Her Survive


June 14, 2014 started out like any other day for Diane Milne. But then, just before the two-hour Zumba exercise class she took almost every morning, she suddenly couldn’t breathe. “I had an overwhelming sense of doom,” recalls Diane, a 68-year-old retired nurse. “I was home alone and I thought I was going to die.” Continue reading…