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Immunotherapy provides new hope for cancer patients

SPONSORED — David Dunnington knows firsthand the importance of a good team.

In January 2012, Dunnington was diagnosed with acral lentiginous melanoma, a rare form of melanoma that gave him a 40 percent chance of survival.

“I learned at 4 o’clock on a Friday over the phone that I had stage-3 melanoma,” he recalled.

Immediately, Dunnington knew he needed to find an oncologist to help him better his odds. He called his tennis partner Dr. Jerry Radich, who happened to be a cancer researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who recommended his colleague Dr. John A. Thompson, co-director of the Melanoma Clinic at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. That recommendation, according to Dunnington, changed his life.

“Jerry gave me Dr. Thompson’s home phone number and I left him a message over the weekend,” Dunnington said. “He called me Sunday afternoon and said ‘I want to see you on Tuesday.’”

That’s when Dunnington was introduced to the collaborative approach at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

“When you have cancer, you know it’s going to kill you if you don’t do something about it,” Dunnington said. “It’s so important that you get started right, because how you start has everything to do with how you end. You must assemble the best possible team.”

For Dunnington, who has a wife, Janet and two boys, Nathan and Spencer, the fight to live became real very quickly. Dunnington began his treatment with a “standard of care,” a therapy of FDA-approved drugs and treatments that offered him hope of killing the cancer. That hope, however, started to disappear after 2½ years of treatments and therapies, including three surgeries.

“It was beginning to look pretty hopeless,” he recalled. “Who survives stage IV metastatic cancer I though, where do you go from here?”

Thankfully, Thompson knew where to go. Dunnington had been told he didn’t qualify for certain immunotherapy trials, but one day, Thompson called with hopeful news: Dunnington could participate in a clinical trial, if he was willing.

The trial, which was a blind study with three arms included traditional chemotherapy and two immunotherapy options. Dunnington says he “caught a lucky break” and was randomly selected into one of the immunotherapy options which saved his live.

“(The trial) was a timely event,” Dunnington said. “If I hadn’t received that within a couple weeks, who knows what would have happened.”

Soon, Dunnington received the news every cancer patient dreams of.

“Dr. Thompson walked in and said, ‘all of your tumors have shrunk by 50 percent. The drug is working,’” Dunnington said. “My wife and I hugged and teared up and just exhaled together, after almost three years of worry, finally, finally, there was relief. There was hope again.”

In fact, the therapy worked so well for Dunnington that when he chose to have his leg removed due to a wound on his foot from radiation, doctors found that a tumor in the leg was dead.

“I could tell the doctors were impressions with the results, and visibly excited!” Dunnington’s immune system was seeing the cancer and killing it. Dunnington sees it as “breakthrough science at the bedside”. All in a day’s work for SCCA physicians, but for Dunnington he calls it a “life changing moment”.

“Right now I’m cancer free,” said Dunnington, who visits Seattle Cancer Care Alliance every six months for a scan to make sure he’s still considered “NED” (no evidence of disease). “I live each day knowing that (anything could change). What else can you do?”

A lot, in Dunnington’s case. Very active before his diagnosis, Dunnington is back to playing tennis with Dr. Radich, giving ‘lunch and learns’ about Obliteride, a fund raising bike ride for Fred Hutch, hiking with his family and living healthier in general – prosthetic leg and all. Now he also has a new calling by encouraging other cancer patients to seek the best help — and to do it quickly.

“Get an appointment. Don’t wait,” he urged. “When you’re first diagnosed, whether it’s stage 1, 2, 3 or 4, you’ve got to put a stop to it. Don’t put it off.”

From his experience, Dunnington also recommends finding the best possible treatment team, which he found at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

“They call it team medicine for a reason. They all take the latest and greatest information and they talk about it in terms of the patient, in this case, me,” he said. “That’s what I mean by assembling the best possible team. Cancer is so serious. You can’t cure it with a single oncologist and a single drug.”

For more information on Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, visit www.seattlecca.org.

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