Friday, June 20, 2008

The Killer T-Cells

If I ever start a rock band, it will be called “The Killer T-Cells” in honor of my bout with melanoma. There’s a research report making the rounds in the media in which one patient (one!) was “cured” with immune cells cloned from his own body. News like this is interesting, but not very relevant. There are several avenues of research being pursued for patients with advanced melanoma, but nothing yet that’s shown a positive, repeatable benefit (other than interferon and interleukin-2). I’m all for a genetically engineered cure for melanoma, but I can’t hold my breath that long.

As a medical editor and teacher of journalism, I cast a very jaundiced eye at most of what passes for medical journalism in the general media. This is especially true about articles based on medical research. Advances in medicine tend to be incremental, which does not make for sexy headlines. Everyone wants a “breakthrough,” which are very few and far between. It says something about our hopes and fears that friends draw my attention to every article on melanoma they come across. Like me, they’re hoping for something better than what we’ve got. Based on the growing incidence of all forms of skin cancer, more money is being poured into melanoma research than ever before. Eventually, someone will strike upon something that’s far less toxic and/or more effective in treating the disease. My guess is it will be some cocktail of drugs, and not necessarily just one thing.

Some researchers believe that you never really cure melanoma. It can recur years later despite the absence of any symptoms. I have a good friend who had surgery for a large melanoma when he was in his 40s, and who went 14 years without any evidence of disease. Now, at age 60, the melanoma has recurred and he’s stage 4. Knowing that the cancer cells could wreck havoc at any time really forces you to rethink your life. It’s one thing to “battle cancer,” which is what I and thousands of other people are doing. It’s something else to live with cancer, once the current battle is over. That doesn’t involve surrender, but knowing how insidious melanoma is, you can never fully let down your guard. That’s a tough concept to wrap your head around, especially when you’re still in the throes of treatment as I am for a while longer.

1 comment:

Carl Pelz said...

Hi Peter, thanks for weighing in on these findings being the consummate journalist you are. Interesting to see how different media outlets took license to use the term "cure" to just sticking with facts (like the WSJ). Hope you actually get to feel good through this weekend with a break from the regimen.