The day before Thanksgiving in 2006, Wolfe Schneider asked his family doctor to check out a mole on his back. He’d had it a while, though he was not sure how long. But since he couldn’t see it, it wasn’t something he thought about often.
“My doctor saw it and she knew it was bad,” Wolfe recalls. “Her mother had died of melanoma. She took a sample and told me I’d be having surgery.”
Wolfe’s biopsy came back as stage III-C melanoma.
“Group Health did the surgery right before Christmas to remove the mole and the lymph nodes under my arms,” Wolfe says. “And I was fine for two years, until I found a lump and had more surgery, and all of the lymph nodes under my left arm were removed.”
Wolfe was then treated with interferon at Group Health. He made it through 20 doses but couldn’t finish. “My oncologist believed I could continue the treatment. I was actually given the choice of continuing the interferon for a year at a somewhat lower dose, but I chose not to do it because the odds of it helping me avoid a recurrence seemed so small,” Wolfe says.
Then another lump showed up. Wolfe had another surgery. His cancer was now stage IV.
“That’s when I went to UW Medical Center to receive Interleukin-2,” he says. IL-2 was supposed to help his own immune system work on killing the cancer cells in his body.
“I was in the hospital for two weeks and a CT scan showed tumors all over the place,” Wolfe said. “IL-2 didn’t work and seemed to be having the opposite effect!” There were tumors in his liver, lung, and bone. Without intervention, the tumors were spreading quickly.
“I figured I was probably dead,” Wolfe says, who was 58 years old at the time. “I knew there wasn’t a cure, so it was easy to decide to get an experimental treatment.”
His Group Health oncologist sent Wolfe to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to be part of a Phase I clinical study of MDX-1105 under the care of Dr. Kim Margolin, medical oncologist at SCCA.
MDX-1105 is a monoclonal antibody that works with the body’s immune system against signals that tumors use to suppress immune reactions.
“While the study that Wolfe participated in was technically a Phase I, designed to test side effects and tolerability of a brand new drug, we were already fairly certain it could help melanoma patients based on animal studies and some preliminary data in patients,” says Dr. Margolin.
“Wolfe suffered from very modest autoimmune-like side effects but achieved a good remission and continues to perform an enormous number of physically and mentally challenging activities, like skiing, climbing, running, and teaching a class full of teenagers to speak Spanish,” she says.
“Basically, I’ve been stable ever since,” Wolfe says. “A tumor ate a hole in my bone and the bone fractured… one on my spine was troubling, so I got radiation and it worked extremely well, as well as radiation to my hip and shoulder.”
An amazing side note of Wolfe’s story is that through his five-year cancer-battling experience, he has yet to run out of sick leave from work. “SCCA worked with me and my treatments so they wouldn’t interfere with my job too much,” he says. He has been coming to SCCA every two weeks for about 2 years.
Side effects of treatment
During his Interleukin-2 treatment, Wolfe gained and lost 40 pounds of fluid each week. He lost all of the skin on his body, which flaked and itched. He had severe lymphedema.
“I used compression sleeves and kept exercising,” Wolfe says, who has been in exceptional physical shape for years, despite his widespread cancer. “I was able to climb Mt. Adams in summer 2011!”
Cancer and life changes
Wolfe teaches Spanish in Buckley, Wash. He’s been part of that school system for over 22 years and is active and well known in his community and church, where he is an elder and plays piano for his congregation.
“I’ve never used a tanning bed,” Wolfe says. “But I was outside a lot as a kid and would oil up and lie out in the sun. I think it’s the combination of burns and having sensitive skin, along with an element of luck-of-the-draw that led me to having melanoma. I don’t blame myself. I didn’t do anything that I knew to be risky to get cancer.”
Wolfe says that cancer hasn’t changed his life that much. “I don’t ski as aggressively as I used to, but honestly, I do all the things I’ve always done. I work everyday, I work out, I hike, play piano in church. Now I just spend lots of time in scans and at SCCA.
“I have a pretty low tolerance for sun now,” he says (Wolfe has developed an autoimmune form of vitiligo, or loss of almost all of the pigment in his skin, which increases his risk of sunburn). And he has atrial fibrillation, a mild cardiac rhythm disorder that might be because of the investigational drug.
Wolfe is the first patient at SCCA to finish treatment on the Phase I clinical study of MDX-1105, just before Christmas 2011. His Christmas present came on December 23 – a scan that showed he was still stable. He’ll have another CT scan in March 2012.
“I tell my kids to get checked. Melanoma isn’t a big deal if found early. I didn’t find mine early,” he says.
Wolfe has had a great life, he says, and is getting to continue to do that. “Which helps,” he admits. “I traveled to Guatemala in the last couple of years; I drive myself up and back to SCCA and on family outings. I am thrilled to be alive and to be able to do whatever I want to. I’m not in control of the cancer, nor am I bitter. I’m at peace.”<< PREVIOUS | NEXT >>