In 2009, Stan Czebruk was hiking with a friend in the Scottish Highlands when he got an unexpected call from his wife Irene back in Montreal. The second Czebruk heard her speak, he knew something was wrong.
“Irene’s voice was breaking up and she began telling me that she had spoken to my doctor, who said that the cyst I had gotten checked out on my earlobe a few months back was actually melanoma,” Czebruk remembers. “She said it was serious and that I had to come back as soon as possible to get it surgically removed, but I was on vacation with a friend, so I was bit reluctant to return.”
Stan finally agreed to cut his vacation short and hastily returned to Canada where the then-51-year-old had surgery at Royal Victoria Hospital. The operation was a success, but due to the melanoma’s proximity to his neck and several large veins, doctors decided to closely monitor his condition.
At first, things remained stable, but about two years after the initial surgery, they took a turn for the worse: Czebruk learned the cancer had spread to his lungs, and soon after, that it had reached his brain.
The next few years would be marked by countless hospital visits. He had chemotherapy and two major craniotomies that ended with a grand total of 110 plastic staples on his head. Nothing seemed to be working, so in a last-ditch effort, his doctors put him on a set of exciting new immunotherapies (“First Yervoy, then Opdivo, then two years of Keytruda,” Czebruk explains).
In 2016, seven years after his initial diagnosis, some good news finally came his way: the immunotherapy was working, and his cancer was in remission.
“Immunotherapy gave me my life back,” says Czebruk, now 60 and finally cancer-free.
Bringing a new therapeutic to more patients
Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment which harnesses the power of a patient’s own immune system to eradicate cancer. In the last few years, it has emerged as the fourth major arm of cancer treatment, along with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
While response to immunotherapy is extremely positive in some cancer patients, most people (up to 80%) show no response to this type of treatment. To find out why this is occurs, TFRI’s Montreal Cancer Consortium (MCC), a newly funded precision medicine project, is enlisting researchers from some of Quebec’s top health care and research facilities. For the first time they are collecting clinical and molecular data from hundreds of melanoma and leukemia patients in the region and using Big Data analysis to determine if there are any biomarkers that could predict how they will respond to immunotherapy.
For patients like Czebruk, these kinds of collaborations are essential to getting exciting new cancer treatments to more and more people, and while there’s no guarantee it will impact his life in any way, he is happy to support a project that could have a positive impact on other melanoma patients needing life-saving treatments.
“I know that through research we will find more ways to battle cancer,” he says. “And this brings hope for every cancer patient, including myself.”