In the realm of cancer treatments, there’s uncertainty: new treatments, prognoses, medical jargon, and tons of pain. A new kind of treatment on the market is producing promising results, minus the headaches. It’s called immunotherapy, and it’s changing lives.
Here’s melanoma survivor Tara Barne’s story.
“I was sitting in the lounge one night when I noticed that a mole on my leg had grown bigger and there was something strange about how it looked,” says Tara. “I made an appointment with my doctor and went to have it removed. The mole was biopsied and the diagnosis came back: I had stage III malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. I underwent treatment with a regimen that was available at the time for a year. The impact of the treatment on my life was substantial. I ran a large national company and it was extremely taxing to undergo treatment which left me feeling nauseous and exhausted. In 2013 I went for a PET scan and the report came back clear. Life returned to normal.
But then, in 2015, I went for another test and it was discovered that the melanoma had spread to the lymph nodes in my groin. We were devastated. The psychological impact on us all was dreadful. The cancer had returned and was spreading; it needed to be treated swiftly to prevent it from reaching other areas of my body.
“My husband asked the oncologist, “What would you do if this was your wife?” His answer was unequivocal: I would offer her immunotherapy. It was a newer treatment that had shown a lot of promise in treating advanced melanomas.”
Essentially, immunotherapy empowers your body’s own immune system to detect and destroy cancer cells. This is achieved by stimulating your body’s immune response. For Tara, this proved to be the turning point she needed to treat the spreading cancer.
Because the treatment wasn’t available in South Africa, Tara had to enlist help from her oncologist and the Medicines Control Council to order the therapy from the US. “It was agonising because, with every day that went by, the risk of the cancer spreading was increased. This shows the dire need for immunotherapy drugs which are gradually becoming available in SA. I experienced enormous anxiety, and my family felt helpless.” Finally, the treatment arrived.
“It’s administered as an intravenous infusion so I would go the doctor’s rooms for treatment, which took around two hours per session. I had several courses of treatment over the period of a year, ending in December 2015. The negative impact on my life this second time around with this new treatment was minimal, and my health and lifestyle improved. I continued to work, I travelled overseas and was able to just get on with my life. For me, the side effects were minimal, and the benefit outweighed any negatives. There was no nausea or hair loss in my case. The fact that I didn’t feel sick was such a positive outcome of this treatment, and it helped to lift the anxiety and stress that I had been experiencing. I also have the peace of mind of knowing that if the cancer were ever to return, I can have the same treatment again.”