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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org