The new treat­ment that saved my life

An on­go­ing global clin­i­cal trial is prov­ing to show great prom­ise in the treat­ment of melanomas. Tom Mur­phy tells Joy Or­pen of his shock when a lump was di­ag­nosed as ma­lig­nant, and how a drug trial gave him back hope

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - NEWS -

Tom Mur­phy is a very, very lucky man. Not only has he led an ex­tremely happy and pro­duc­tive life, that life has now been spared, thanks to a clin­i­cal trial that looks set to bring hope to many more can­cer suf­fer­ers.

Tom was born on New Year’s Eve, 70 years ago. “My mother just couldn’t hold out un­til New Year’s Day, be­cause I was a 12lb baby,” he quips, with a twin­kle in his very blue eyes. Tom mar­ried his sweet­heart, Eileen O’Shea, 44 years ago, and the cou­ple have lived in Water­ville, Co Kerry, ever since. They have three daugh­ters and a son — Mark Mur­phy, a golf pro­fes­sional in Florida.

Tom’s ca­reer got go­ing when he went to Tem­ple­more Garda Col­lege in 1966. “A week later, they blew up Nel­son’s Pil­lar,” he re­mem­bers. “We were only young lads then, so we weren’t too pushed. But later we found out about some very heinous crimes done in the name of Ire­land, in­clud­ing young guards los­ing their lives.” But Tom re­mem­bers the good times, too; the former Pres­i­dents of Ire­land, the film stars and the dig­ni­taries that he and other mem­bers of the Garda Siochana were called on to pro­tect, when they vis­ited the King­dom of Kerry. He also re­calls some of the fa­mous guests — Jack Lem­mon, for ex­am­ple — who vis­ited John Mulc­ahy, the wealthy Ir­ishAmer­i­can who did so much for the lo­cal com­mu­nity around Water­ville. And, fi­nally, there was Tiger Woods. “Mark cad­died for him when he was a lad,” Tom ex­plains.

Not only did Tom have a re­ward­ing ca­reer and an ex­ceed­ingly happy home life, he was blessed by good health. “I was never a day sick in my life,” he says. “And I was never in­side the door of a hos­pi­tal, ex­cept to visit friends.” How­ever, about 16 years ago he had a mole on his arm re­moved; but after that, there were no fur­ther med­i­cal in­ci­dents un­til 2012.

“Eileen and I were in the States vis­it­ing our son,” says Tom. “One day I was play­ing golf in New Or­leans with Mark, and a friend of his, who was an or­thopaedic sur­geon. I’d no­ticed a bump on my arm, where the mole had been, so I showed it to him. He took me to a col­league of his, a der­ma­tol­o­gist. Later, the or­thopaedic sur­geon re­moved it and some lymph nodes.” That was not the end of the mat­ter. In fact, it was just the very be­gin­ning. A week later, Tom learned that the lump was, in fact, a ma­lig­nant melanoma.

He was told to have fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tions as soon as he re­turned to Ire­land. So he saw on­col­ogy spe­cial­ist Pro­fes­sor John McCaffrey, in the Mater Pri­vate in Dublin. “I was put on in­ter­feron and had to in­ject my­self in the stom­ach five times a week,” he ex­plains. “That con­tin­ued for a year.” In July 2013, Tom got the all-clear. But just two months later, another lump ap­peared, so Prof McCaffrey or­dered a full-body scan. Tom says the con­sul­tant broke the news of the re­sults as gen­tly as he could. “He said, ‘Tom, there is no easy way to tell you this, but the melanoma is back’. I had to won­der, ‘Where do I go from here?’” Tom was even more shocked to hear that his lungs were now com­pro­mised as well.

Melanoma is the most com­mon cause of skin can­cer. About 720 peo­ple an­nu­ally are di­ag­nosed with melanomas in Ire­land. The tu­mours oc­cur when a group of cells grow ab­nor­mally in the layer of skin that pro­duces melanin, the pig­ment that gives skin colour. When melanomas spread (metas­ta­sise) be­yond the lymph nodes, sur­vival rates de­crease very rapidly. So things were look­ing pretty bleak; the tu­mour on Tom’s arm had re­turned, while there was ev­i­dence of can­cer in his lungs.

But sud­denly a ray of hope man­i­fested when Prof McCaffrey told Tom about clin­i­cal tri­als, be­ing con­ducted by an Amer­i­can phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany, into the ef­fi­cacy of two very spe­cific drugs in tack­ling melanomas. He felt his pa­tient would be a suit­able can­di­date to take part in the tri­als. So in Oc­to­ber 2013, Tom be­gan an in­ten­sive course of treat­ment that lasted 12 weeks.

“After­wards the scans showed the lump had melted away and my lungs were clear,” says Tom. “This treat­ment saved my life, there is no doubt about that. Melanoma is a very rapid can­cer, so this break­through is far be­yond any­thing they, or I, had hoped for. To have come through this is a mir­a­cle of sci­ence.” Tom says med­i­cal staff were baf­fled as to why he had ab­so­lutely no side ef­fects from the drugs. There was no nau­sea, no hair loss and no ap­par­ent dam­age to healthy tis­sue.

Prof McCaffrey says this par­tic­u­lar clin­i­cal trial, which has 30 pa­tients in four lo­ca­tions around Ire­land, is part of a much larger study in­volv­ing 945 par­tic­i­pants world­wide. It is tak­ing a whole new ap­proach to treat­ing this form of can­cer. “Be­cause melanomas arise from the body’s own tis­sue, the im­mune sys­tem doesn’t kick into ac­tion,” ex­plains Prof McCaffrey. “But none­the­less, that af­fected tis­sue is out of con­trol. So what we need is a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to kick-start the im­mune sys­tem into tack­ling the melanoma. We are us­ing im­munother­apy, as op­posed to chemo­ther­apy. The down­side is that the im­mune sys­tem can also at­tack healthy tis­sue.” Prof McCaffrey says that Time mag­a­zine called the trial “the break­through of the year”.

He says the tri­als con­tinue to of­fer hope in the treat­ment of melanomas in cer­tain pa­tients, and in com­bat­ing other can­cers — for ex­am­ple, can­cer of the lungs or kid­neys. He says Tom sailed

‘The scans showed the lump had melted away and my lungs were clear. This treat­ment saved my life’

through his ther­apy and has achieved what is known as com­plete re­mis­sion; in other words, there is no ev­i­dence of can­cer. “He will have to be in re­mis­sion for five years be­fore we can say it is gone,” ex­plains Prof McCaffrey. In the mean­time, Tom con­tin­ues to travel to Dublin once a fort­night for ob­ser­va­tion and main­te­nance treat­ment.

Tom says that when he was di­ag­nosed with can­cer the sec­ond time around, he used to lie in bed at night feel­ing very down and think­ing about all the things he’d still like to do with his life; things that nearly al­ways in­volved the fam­ily he loves so much. “Am I go­ing to get the chance to do them?” he’d won­der. Now he feels he’s been given another shot at life. “With good sup­ports like Prof McCaffrey and th­ese new life-sav­ing drugs, life is amaz­ing,” he en­thuses.

Tom has ded­i­cated him­self to rais­ing funds for the Mater Foun­da­tion, which helps fi­nance var­i­ous projects shared by the Mater Pri­vate and the public Mater Mis­eri­cor­diae Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal.

This Fri­day, May 20, is In­ter­na­tional Clin­i­cal Tri­als Day. To sup­port can­cer re­search at the Mater Hos­pi­tal, tel: (01) 830-03482, or see mater­foun­da­tion.ie or email con­tact@mater­foun­da­tion.ie

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