All Aussies should have access to this lifesaver
*This article was originally published in The Daily Telegraph*
I originally thought the melanoma on my knee was a blood-blister.
My doctor didn’t flag any great cause for concern, but I just hated the look of it.
I consulted a plastic surgeon to remove the shiny red patch and they submitted a sample to be tested for skin cancer. It took them a while to come back with a definitive diagnosis, then I got the devastating news — it was melanoma. I had surgery to remove the tumour but it was too late, the cancer had already spread across multiple lymph nodes.
I was rattled. As a mother of two children who were just 11 and 13 years old at the time, this was hard news to digest. Melanoma takes the lives of 1800 Australians each year and, all of a sudden, I was at risk of becoming one of them.
The week I was diagnosed, my family and I watched a 60 Minutes segment about a women younger than myself who passed away from an aggressive melanoma tumour. Growing up in Australia, we are inundated with so many stories like these — after all, melanoma is our “national cancer.” I’d heard so much about the worst-case scenario for melanoma patients, that my outlook on my diagnosis was incredibly grim.
Until I was diagnosed with melanoma, I never thought about how patients access the treatments for cancer. Now that I’ve been full circle, I want all Australians to be able to access new options for treatment. We must also celebrate the game-changing researchers that are helping to save lives.
I had surgery to remove my tumour and multiple lymph nodes, but even though it was successful, there was still a huge risk that the cancer would progress to Stage IV melanoma. Once the cancer reaches this stage it means it has spread to the other organs like your lungs, brain or liver.
I was hopeful I would be eligible to participate in a clinical trial to try to prevent my cancer progressing to Stage IV. My doctor quickly referred me to Professor Georgina Long, Co-Medical Director at Melanoma Institute Australia. Professor Long was helping to pave a new way for tackling cancer.
I remember feeling overwhelmed and intimidated going into my first meeting with Professor Long. I was so worried that a clinical trial would make me feel like a guinea pig. However, once she began explaining her work, it revealed a side of melanoma I had never heard about.
Professor Long and her colleagues are leading the world in melanoma research. Their groundbreaking work is completely transforming the way melanoma — and cancer more broadly — is diagnosed and treated worldwide. New treatments are tripling the life expectancy of some advanced melanoma patients and researchers are learning more every day about how they can be used to treat patients with other cancers.
I was put on a clinical trial for one of these new, revolutionary treatments. The medication I took was an immunotherapy, which activates my own immune system to attack and kill cancer cells. The reality is that the development of treatments, like immunotherapy, means we are moving toward melanoma no longer being a possible death sentence, but rather a treatable, chronic condition.
Access to these new treatments for melanoma in Australia is constantly evolving and growing. So many Australians have already been treated with these therapies in recent years, including AFL player Jarryd Roughead. I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to go on a clinical trial. Continuing to improve and accelerate this is absolutely crucial to making sure all Australians diagnosed with melanoma can access these treatments — not only those on clinical trials.
However, participating in the trial has given me hope and made me feel a part of something bigger. It’s shown me that, while my own cancer journey has been challenging, I have in some way contributed to helping cancer patients all over the world. My scans will be analysed over the next ten years as Professor Long looks at the long-term outcomes of the immunotherapy I have been treated with.
Through this type of research, Professor Long believes we can achieve zero deaths from melanoma within a generation.
But I’ve realised that to achieve this goal, we all need to support our local researchers. We should strive to know more about the revolutionary, homegrown research taking place in our own backyard — and ensure access to these treatments. While melanoma is our “national cancer” with a higher incidence rate in Australia and New Zealand than anywhere else in the world, we are also leading the way in combating the disease through incredible science, research and access.
Professor Long recently received the prestigious GSK Award for Research Excellence along with her Co-Medical Director of Melanoma Institute Australia Professor Richard Scolyer. It comes with an $80,000 grant that will go straight into funding ongoing research — like the very study I am in. I think there should be more opportunities like this to recognise the work being done by Australian researchers.
I wish that I had known about this remarkable new research into melanoma treatment when I was first diagnosed. If we take the time to learn about, support and celebrate these amazing researchers we can give hope to the 14,000 Australians diagnosed with melanoma each year.
Researchers from MIA will present their latest research findings to the world’s largest oncology conference in early June.
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