In June 2014, 51-year-old Sue Brown noticed a lump the size of a golf ball in her left arm’s bicep. Having been a nurse for nearly 30 years, she knew she should have it checked out right away. After an exam, her primary care doctor referred her to Mario Sznol, MD, medical oncologist at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New Haven, who ordered a series of tests.
Even with her experience as an advanced practice nurse, and a breast cancer survivor, nothing could have prepared Sue for the news Dr. Sznol shared with her. As she sat with her husband, her father, and family friend, Dr. Sznol explained to Sue that not only was the tumor on her bicep malignant, but the melanoma had also spread to her brain, spine, hip, legs and one lung. Sue was officially diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. After hearing her diagnosis, Sue, wife and mother of two teenagers, remembers telling Dr. Sznol that she wanted to be around to see her son, then 15-years-old, graduate from high school.
With an international reputation in cancer drug development, Dr. Sznol has expertise and experience in cancer immunotherapy drug development for cancer, and treatment of patients with melanoma. “Most melanomas start on the skin,” explained Dr. Sznol. “The problem is those cells can travel from the primary site through the bloodstream to other parts of the body.”
In the blur of information that followed, Sue recalls Dr. Sznol explaining that with the use of new molecular targeted treatments geared at her type of cancer, the prognosis could indicate several good years ahead for her. One of Sue’s first treatments was Gamma Knife, a non-invasive alternative to traditional brain surgery for the treatment of malignant and benign tumors. The successful procedure eliminated the two tumors on her brain. Next steps called for endoscopy to open a lung segment blocked by tumor and treatment with oral medication.
“Sue’s case was very difficult,” Dr. Sznol explained. “Due to underlying medical conditions, we were not able to immediately offer some of most promising immune therapy medications to treat her cancer. The medications we ultimately used were effective against her cancer but also required many adjustments.”
As Sue spent the next 18 months on multiple trials of medications, Dr. Sznol was up front with her and let her know that he wasn’t sure which one would work but they were going to keep trying until they found the right one.
“I had one really bad reaction to a medication,” Sue recalled. “I ended up in intensive care – it was really bad. But, I came out of that as well…” Eventually Dr. Sznol was able to add one of the new immune therapy medications to her treatment regimen, with the possibility that it might produce a long lasting remission of the disease.
By September 2015, Sue felt strong enough to form a team and ride in Closer to Free – the annual YNHH signature bike ride fundraiser – and raised $23,000 for Smilow Cancer Hospital.
Over time during her treatment, MRIs, CT scans, PET scans and other test results indicated that the medications were working – the tumors were shrinking. “Finally, in August 2016, the news we so desperately wanted to hear – the cancer was gone!” she said
Still riding high on adrenaline from her cancer–free diagnosis, Sue and her husband organized a team of 40 cyclists for the 2016 Closer to Free ride and raised $39,000!
“I was thrilled to be able to give back to the institution that gave me back my life,” she said.
These days, Sue is feeling pretty good. She is back to work as a behavioral health practitioner and gearing up for Closer to Free 2017. She is well aware that her type of cancer can recur, but feels assured that with Dr. Sznol and the Smilow team, and the support of her family and friends, that they can manage whatever lies ahead.
“My son graduates in June.” she said. “I’ll be there.”