In 2009, a mole high on my left shoulder blade looked suspicious. The biopsy showed it was positive for melanoma. I was given a wide excision to remove the mole and surrounding tissue as well as further lymph node biopsies which proved negative for melanoma.
At the time, even though there was no evidence of further spread, I was offered an Interferon trial in Kelowna and a trial for a new drug in Edmonton. I declined both trials for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was I was clear of disease.
I love the outdoors and enjoyed growing up at a rural lake property with parents and grandparents with outdoor lifestyles. Hiking, skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, atv riding, cross-country motorcycling, boating and swimming are my passions and have been since I was a very young boy. My dog Misty is my favourite companion and she accompanies me almost everywhere I go.
May 4th of 2015, (almost six years after my mole was removed), I was home from a job in Saskatoon and out hiking. I found myself very short of breath and headed to emergency, unsure of what was causing it. I had been feeling great, in good physical condition with no weight loss, working out at the gym and working physically at my job as a pipefitter. Occasionally I was tired but attributed it to 14 straight night shifts of at least 10 – 12 hours.
The doctors didn’t have great news for me. I had fluid around my lung and what appeared to be a mass. Further testing and a week later it was rough to hear the melanoma had returned and metastasized to a pleural effusion, tumours around my kidneys, and a mass in my lung. Within 3 weeks I was put on the drug combo Dabrafenib plus Trametinib for advanced melanoma. By this time 1 litre of fluid was being drained from my pleural space daily and I was pretty sick. Within a month the fluid started reducing and I started to feel better. Within another month the fluid was down to 100 ml every three or four days and life started to became a little more normal; I was feeling better and gaining weight. Unfortunately, in September I developed a resistance to the drugs and by mid-October I was in pretty rough shape again. I was waiting for approval to start Keytruda and in the meantime consulted a naturopath whose practise is primarily cancer patients. He mentioned a couple of patients of his who were on a new combo therapy. I relayed this to my oncologist from Kelowna who agreed to look into it. I declined very quickly and was admitted to hospital in Kamloops as the fluid level around my lung was causing havoc with my sodium and potassium and heart and blood pressure and I wasn’t feeling so great. My oncologist called on a Monday to say he had checked out the new therapy (approved by Health Canada only weeks before) and the Cross Cancer Clinic in Edmonton would take me for treatment as part of a clinical study group. I was in hospital in Kamloops and had to get to Edmonton to start that same week. What a hairy Ride!! (Another story and a testament to health care workers!!)
In Edmonton I started the combo treatment – 4 treatments of Ipilimumab and Nivolumab. I was in and out of the hospital the first 3 weeks, however all my levels started fluctuating again, with 3 litres of fluid being drained daily, and sodium, potassium, heart and blood pressure levels all dangerous. Just before treatment two, I was transferred to the Cross Cancer Institute and became an in-patient for a month so that I could be monitored around the clock. What an incredible place and people. I am so grateful to all the doctors, nurses and support staff who took such incredible care of me. I was on the edge of a precipice and they brought me back. By New Year’s Eve my chest drain was down to 150ml daily from a high of 3 litres only a month before. I was weak and thin but getting better every day. The CT scan after the first 12 weeks of treatment showed no tumours around my kidney and all else reduced significantly.
On January 18th , my pleural drain and PIC lines were removed, and I was switched from my combo therapy to a Nivolumab infusion every two weeks for 48 weeks. On January 12th I went snowmobiling with the help of my great friends and have been out 15 times since. I am back to pre-treatment weight, building muscle, just passed 66 of 24 more treatments and my bi-weekly checks have been very positive.
I am so grateful for the support of my incredible family and friends and all those who rallied near and far to help me. Cancer patients need strong advocates to help navigate through so many issues. I am not sure how I could have managed daily activities let alone the endless appointments, tests, questions, forms, sick benefit applications, insurance company challenges and financial challenges without the help of so many others. Losing your independence is a very scary predicament. Family friends organized a Gofundme campaign which helped so much in restoring my independence and reducing financial stress.
The Melanoma Network has been so supportive and connected me with others who have been through this experience. This was very helpful to both myself and my family. Cam Lane and Caroline Cooper – Thank You!!! The information MNC provides to help patients and families and their advocacy for access to new therapies and treatment is so critical. I am looking forward to co-ordinating the Strides for Melanoma Walk again this year in Kamloops and raising funds to help others.
Words cannot adequately express how thankful I am for all the energy, love and support directed to me, the incredible Canadian medical system, the support networks to help patients, and especially the outstanding team at the Cross Cancer Institute and their attitude of hope every single day. Chris Brochu