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Yves Tellier

Immunotherapy gives melanoma cancer survivor a second chance at life

When Yves Tellier first noticed a dark spot on his lower leg, his first instinct was to dismiss it—after all he had just whacked himself with a golf club a few weeks earlier, and had no reason to think the spot was anything other than an oddly-shaped bruise. Even as months passed and the "bruise" failed to disappear, Tellier didn’t think much of it: by then he had gotten so used to it that he completely forgot it was even there.

It wouldn’t be until a few years later, in the summer of 2012, that he would be forced to think of the spot again. It was then that his doctor – who he visited after noticing a lump forming in his groin – told him that it was actually the primary site of melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer that had started to spread through his body.

“When I heard the diagnosis, I was somewhat confused,” Tellier remembers. “In my mind, I didn’t really think that the spot was anything, which is partially why I felt like the diagnosis was a lot less threatening than it actually was. I didn’t realize until later how deadly this form of cancer could be, which in hindsight probably helped me stay reasonably zen with the initial diagnosis.”

Finding the right treatment

The then-66-year-old was so zen about his diagnosis that three days before starting chemotherapy, he was standing on the top of a mountain with skis on his feet and a big smile of anticipation on his face. Little did he know as he got ready to slalom down the mountain that something life-changing was about to happen.

“As I was coming down the mountain I had an accident and ended with a broken collarbone. While it was painful at the time, looking back it probably saved my life: we had to cancel the first round of chemo, and the extra time allowed me to explore new options and to learn about the work being done by Drs. Wilson Miller (McGill University) and Rahima Jamal (Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal) who had started a clinical trial that used chemotherapy and immunotherapy in combination for melanoma.”

Tellier contacted the doctors. He already knew that immunotherapy was being hailed as one of the best treatments for melanoma, which is why he did his best to join their trial. Luckily enough, he met the criteria and, although towards the end of his treatment his chances of survival seemed slim, the combination therapy eventually proved to be extremely effective. 

“Thanks to this treatment, and the formidable medical team I worked with, my health improved, and I have had the good fortune of having a complete response to the treatment with few side-effects,” said Tellier, who at 71 is back golfing, skiing, cycling, hiking and even scuba diving.

The promise of immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a promising type of cancer treatment that 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. But while responses are extremely promising in some patients, most people show no response to this type of treatment.

Several TFRI-funded projects are trying to harness the full potential of immunotherapy by finding new ways to understand exactly who will benefit from it while also searching for better ways to elicit immune response in patients who may not -- on paper -- appear to benefit from these treatments. These projects include the Terry Fox Canadian Comprehensive Cancer Centre Network (TF4CN) and the Montreal Cancer Consortium (MCC)

Some of the doctors and researchers that helped Yves Tellier recover from melanoma are a part of the MCC and are using tissue samples from patients like him to be able to make immunotherapy more effective for others, which is something Tellier is keen on helping them do.

“Immunotherapy saved my life. It has given me a second chance and is allowing my partner and I to enjoy the autumn of our lives together,” Tellier says. “It is a major breakthrough in the treatment of certain cancers and would not be possible without the tireless work of cancer researchers. Hopefully, projects like the MCC can allow these researchers to work together in new ways, which can bring hope to other cancer patients by making immunotherapy more effective and accessible to them.”