After 7 clinical trials, 8 surgeries, and more infusions than he can count --- Eric Martin is still here, seven years after being diagnosed with melanoma. He has had ups and downs and has tried practically every FDA-approved therapy for melanoma – but the crux of this story, which all readers need to understand, is that Eric’s fight isn’t yet finished. That’s because unlike many of the stories featured by MRA – Eric is still searching for his silver bullet and the elusive letters N.E.D. (no evidence of disease). He’s got big plans and melanoma isn’t going to get in the way. In short, Eric is a melanoma warrior.
It all started in 2011 with a stubborn scab-like spot on his back. He ignored it at first, hoping it would just go away on its own, but after it started to change colors and even bleed he decided to see a dermatologist. He was sitting in the waiting room and felt like he was sinking into his chair. “I was surrounded by posters of melanoma. It looked just like the mark on my back.” Before the doctor had even said a word, he knew what he was going to hear.
“Am I going to die? What’s going to happen? What’s next?” The thoughts raced through his mind. This feeling was foreign to Eric, he had never really been to a doctor before. He’d never even broken a bone. In fact, he had had no real medical issues in his life. He was confused and scared.
By the time he saw an oncologist and was told he had a 50/50 shot – he had put his game face on. He wanted to see a doctor that specialized in melanoma and found himself with Dr. Gregory Daniels at the University of California San Diego Morris Cancer Center.
Treatment started with surgery and adjuvant interferon, but it was soon discontinued when another lump was found. More melanoma. The cycle of surgery and interferon was repeated – but the reprieve was short lived. In August 2012, follow up scans revealed 20 ‘relatively small’ tumors all over his liver.
This time, surgery and interferon weren’t going to be enough. He and his doctor decided that the best bet was enrolling in a promising trial investigating tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes – or TIL therapy - at the National Institutes of Health with Dr. Steven Rosenberg. Some patients were seeing incredible results, which of course were not guaranteed. For Eric, the stakes seemed higher than ever: his wife just found out she was pregnant with their first child. Eric's second.
TILs, or tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, are the white blood cells that have successfully fought their way into the tumor. One theory is that these TILs are insufficient in number and/or otherwise incapable of fully reacting to the tumor as a foreign invader to be killed. TIL therapy works by harvesting TILs from a patient’s tumor, expanding their numbers greatly in a lab, and then administering these lab-grown TILs back into the patient’s body. These infused cells, already primed to successfully swarm the cancer, are then further activated with high-dose interleukin-2 (IL-2).
The TIL therapy worked. In fact, it was considered a “complete response,” meaning that he wasn’t necessarily cured, but that signs of cancer had disappeared. It was a great year. He saw the birth of his son and things started to look up. Then, three green dots appeared on his right pectoral.
He immediately started his second clinical trial examining the then experimental combination of nivolumab + ipilimumab. After his first infusion of ipilimumab he landed in the hospital. The side effects of the immunotherapy were extreme and he dropped the ipilimumab altogether from the regimen. Nivolumab and surgery kept the tumors at bay, but eventually the spots came back. Tumors were now visible under his skin, and biopsies confirmed – it was all melanoma.
He started interleukin-2 (IL-2) and over 2 sessions had 50-60 doses of the medication infused into his bloodstream. Once again, the side effects brought on by activating the immune system reared their ugly head. “I wanted to die. It was horrible – easily the worst treatment I’ve ever gone through. I had every side effect that they warn you about”, said Eric.
Ultimately, it was all for nothing. The IL-2 wasn’t working.
The next two clinical trials that Eric enrolled in were based on vaccines. If doctor’s injected mutated virus into the tumor – then boosted the immune system using immunotherapy, could they persuade it to attack and ultimately clear the tumors? Some saw results, but Eric’s tumors continued to grow. Then he did keytruda by itself. But after 6 doses the tumors still continued to grow.
At this point, Dr. Daniels had run out of trials to help Eric enroll into. Eric was determined not to give up, but it is hard not to become frustrated and lose hope. In late 2017, He decided to try a new approach, and began to drive three hours each direction to Los Angeles to see Dr. Omid Hamid at The Angeles Clinic.
While the cancer was determined, so is Eric. He is now on his second clinical trail through Dr. Hamid. The first one they took him off after 3 doses as it was not working. He just had his 4th treatment a week ago on the newest treatment with keytruda and a drug called LAG3. But they discussed at that treatment that it really doesn't seem to working as the tumors have grown so much since starting this new trail, with new ones showing up. So when he goes back in 2 weeks they have already decided they will be starting him on a Taf/Mek trial because he is BRAF gene positive.
He also started his own prevention focused non-profit organization. It is called Stage FREE Melanoma. I don’t want people to have a story like mine,” said Eric. “I want to make a difference. Stage 1 stories – are so much easier to hear.”
He wants to bring sun safety awareness and skin checks directly to people. “I’m tired of people saying that it’s ‘just skin cancer.’ If we make [early detection] easy, people don’t have any excuse.”
This article started by declaring Eric a melanoma warrior. The treatments he has tried read like a laundry list and nine clinical trials later – it would be easy for him to be jaded. The miracle is, that he isn’t. Eric is committed to making a difference and he hasn’t lost the spark of hope. He knows that researchers across the globe are working every day to crack the code and find a treatment that will work for people like him. And, he’s still an advocate for clinical trials: “Clinical trials have kept me alive. I’m still here.” That said, it isn’t always easy and sometimes it feels like the walls are closing in. “If I make the wrong decision, there are real implications. This could kill me. I just have to keep fighting until we find a treatment that will work.”
Melanoma: Life is never a dull moment when you have cancer. The last couple months have been really rough. I have these two tumors on my back that have out grown golf balls. I just got off a trial, and about to start another next week. I keep telling myself at least they’re on your back and not somewhere else right? Well last night I start feeling like someone kicked me in the balls, so I start feeling around down there and sure enough, my right testicle is super hard and swollen. So I call my doctor and he insisted I cancel Valentine's Day and go get an ultrasound, which confirmed a mass. I stayed the night and had surgery to remove the testicle. Who's ever herd of melanoma in the sack? Thats fucked up!!!
Tests with Dr. Hamid confirmed the mass was Melanoma. We are thankful it is not testicular Cancer, as that would throw a wrench in my Melanoma trials. I have had 2 new spots pop up since surgery, one on my arm and below my right eye, but they will not affect the new trial I start now. Two different drugs ( A PD1 and a drug called LAG3 ).
Today is my second treatment of the trial. Saw Dr Hamid, and tumors have not changed since last time. This is great news! I have extreme fatigue, flu like symptoms and very dry skin issues that nothing is working for it. Mainly scalp, ears, and face.
Follow up with Dr. Hamid and clinical trial coordinator. Blood work, measure and take photos of tumors. I have new spots on my chest area. They think they may be another kind of skin cancer, but not Melanoma. They cut out one for biopsy. Most of the visible tumors seem stable except the largest one on my back, which has grown. Continue treatment, 3rd one April 4th then scans two weeks later. The steroid cream is working for the very dry skin issues. Prayers this treatment is going to be my miracle.
Great news! There is nothing new inside and everything is stable. The other tumors on my back, especially the two largest ones, have grown, one quite a bit more than the other and the one on my right calf has grown as well. The one on my arm, other calf and my right eye have stayed the same. For now, my doctor wants to do 1-2 more treatments before they decide if the treatment is working or not.
The doctor believes all the tumors have grown a little. They decided to do the treatment today, but they made the decision that if there is no change by the next treatment, they will put me on Taf/Mek and I will go back to Dr. Daniels. Praying so hard for some good news.
I am back seeing Dr. Daniels. I was supposed to have a brain MRI at 7:30 this morning and a full body Pet Scan at 5:00pm tonight. The MRI got canceled because the insurance denied it. I will have my scan at 5:00. I am supposed to have an appointment with my doctor tomorrow for Scan results and discuss treatment options, as I did fail my last treatment (#8). I now have a very bad infection in one of the huge tumors on my back that is open. Praying so hard that they get this infection under control hopefully to relieve some of the pain and prayers for scans to show nothing new.
Dr. Daniels put me on Taf/Mek. The plan was to do it for 30 days with hopes to shrink my huge tumors and give my body a break from all the side affects I’ve had with all the other treatments. I started it on a Tuesday, I took it everyday for 8 days then, started low grade fever, rigors, throwing up, migraines, horrible pain, and each day got worse. Dr. told me to stop treatment. By Saturday was even worse with fevers up to 104-105, rigors that wouldn't stop, dry heaves, never felt so sick. Sunday was the worst day. We called the doctor back and he wanted to see a picture off my bad tumor on his back that has been opened up for quite sometime and looked infected. Doctor said it definitely looked infected and that could be causing all the side affects. He put me on a really strong antibiotic to take for a week. Each day got a little better. By Thursday I was feeling pretty good so doctor said to go back on the pills. I took them for another 6 days and started having low grade fevers again, freezing, pain, more exhaustion. I didn't want to get as sick as the week before, so I stopped the meds again and slowly got better. The good part of this that the tumors are SHRINKING. The doctor has a new clinical trail he wanted to put him on, but wanted to do the Tax/Mek first.
Brain MRI showed some small spots in the brain, NOT GOOD!! I stayed on the taf/mek for a little longer to see if anything got smaller or went away but not the case. Follow up MRI showed progression. So more and more treatment. I'll stay on Keytruda and check into the hospital to start IL2. After the first cycle of IL2 and scans, I’ll start radiation on the brain.
The month of July, 2018 was amazing! Some wonderful friends, and my oldest son, and I flew to New Jersey to pick up our donated bus and drive it across country to San Diego. We had an eventful trip, stopping along the way in wonderful places like New Orleans, and meeting some wonderful Mela-Homies along the way!
Starting IL2 again for the 3rd time. This time they’re doing it with the Keytruda, hoping for a better response. This treatment is literally the worst treatment there is for Melanoma.
By the 5th dose I am feeling a little rough, very swollen and dealing with hives. On 9th dose of IL2 I am staying strong and pushing to do more. 10th dose - they were going to do one more, but doctor decided tonight that he will do the 10 doses and no more as my platelets are starting to get to low and a couple other side affects medication isn’t helping. My chest and stomach acting up and now I’m sitting pretty much in agony, my whole body is swollen red with white lesions and I feel like I’m on fire. I’ve taken every drug they have but I’m literally sitting here in tears just wanting some relief to hopefully make it home tomorrow. I couldn't catch my breath, and started getting really bad chest pain. It was like a 20 on a pain scale. And still having shortness of breath. The doctor ordered an EKG, which was fine, along with my vitals. He believes it was fluid built up pressing on the chest and lungs from the treatment as the rest of my body was quite swollen which is a common side affect from IL2.
I had my 7th Keytruda infusion, and a Brain MRI and full body CT scans to see if the IL2 worked. Definitely not the news we wanted to hear. After going through the worst treatment there is for this disease for the 3rd time, I really thought as far down as it took me and how sick I was, I really thought we would hear something good. But no, it had a FUCKING mind of its own. Instead of a few tumors in the brain like last scans there are two many to count.
I saw another doctor for a second opinion. My Dr. has told me I’m not a candidate for any new clinical trials because the tumors in my brain went from 8 to over 20. My only options are IL2 again after failing it 3 times, or Nivulamb/Yervoy, which I have also failed. This doctor told me that brain radiation, which I am doing, works really well with Nivolumab/Yervo, which was what I decided to do. I will be doing brain radiation.
I was admitted to the hospital after throwing up, nausea, high fevers, rigors, abdomen pain and feeling terrible. They did bloodwork, scans of the brain and abdomen. The brain showed no change and the abdomen showed very inflamed lymph nodes, possibly as a side effect from all the treatments.
Great news today! radiologist says my brain is STABLE! Waiting to see my oncologist about what to do next. Also planning another treatment of Nivulaumb/Yervoy. I have some new visible tumors on my back that are growing everyday and are very painful. They are going to do 6 rounds of radiation in a 3 week time frame. Starting on Dec. 18th. Doctor said it will probably be rough. And then more Nivoluamb/Yervoy on the 21st.
Got my 4th dose of radiation on my back. And now my 3rd dose of Nivulaumb/Yervoy. They have now diagnosed me with colitis. So haven’t been able to have treatment since. Doctor doesn’t want to do steroids so has had me on very bland diet and taking probiotics. I have lost so much weight.
1/15/19 More bad news yesterday. I got the results back of the scans I had done a couple weeks ago. The ugly beast has gone to my right knee. There is a new tumor. I just completed 6 radiation treatments on some large painful tumors on my back. Now must start radiation on the tumor on the knee!!!
I had my 4th dose of Nivolumab/Yervoy I’ve definitely had a better week this week compared to the last 3 treatments. I am still extremely exhausted, but the nausea has been easier. My two large back tumors have shrunk quite a bit. The largest tumor on my back that has been there for over a year is still very large, but has been really soft for quite some time. It did not show up in my latest PET scan last week. My doctor believes it is dead and just full of fluid so they are talking of draining it off. The 28 tumors in my brain that they did aggressive radiation on in November showed stable in my MRI. I am having another brain MRI on Monday and we are praying so hard those tumors are gone. My last PET scan did show new melanoma in my right knee. The Radiation doctor is going to do mapping and then do 5 doses of radiation.
3/2/19 I look forward to hosting the Stage Free Melanoma 1st Annual 5k Run/Walk at Kit Carson Park in Escondido to raise funds for the Mole Patrol Bus.
This addendum to Eric’s story was written by the Stage Free Melanoma board and Eric’s family, and is NOT a conclusion! His story will continue as long as SFM diligently works to deliver our mobile screening and detection services to Southern California, and provide Melanoma education and awareness.
We believe Eric’s message to all of you would have been to prioritize spirituality and Faith (Eric had a strong Faith in Jesus Christ). We also believe he would have wanted all of us to fight and never give up. Fight to find and participate in clinical trials…fight to increase our education regarding the science surrounding this disease…fight to take control of our own treatment, and never adopt a victim mentality.
We know Eric was extremely proud and motivated by seeing the progress of SFM over the past few years. Even during his darkest times with this disease, SFM’s bus always gave him light, laughter, energy and hope. Man he loved that bus, and often said that if he could manage it, his dream would be to work full time driving it to events for mobile detection.
Eric was a humble man, who personally shied away from the spotlight. It’s our goal to continue to shine the spotlight on his story as a key way to help others. Please help us do this by being active on the various channels we have for education and awareness, including blogging and posting of testimonials.
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