Survivor knows terminal cancer reprieve not forever

By Martin Johnston

The trial drug dabrafenib is keeping Matthew Rogers' terminal melanoma at bay. Photo / Sarah Ivey
The trial drug dabrafenib is keeping Matthew Rogers' terminal melanoma at bay. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The immediate threat of death from melanoma has faded for Matthew Rogers, thanks to an experimental medicine.

Aged just 36 now, he was diagnosed with terminal melanoma in February.

The North Shore family man and hi-fi store manager is fair-skinned and recalls getting sunburned as a child but later became progressively more cautious about sun exposure.

Around three years ago, he had a mole cut from his left elbow, in a place where he couldn't easily see it. It was a melanoma. A biopsy of a linked lymph node in his left armpit was found to be clear of cancer, an indication that the disease hadn't spread. Three-monthly checks ensued at North Shore Hospital.

"That went on for two years, then I noticed I had a lump forming on my chest, about the size of a 50c piece, slightly raised."

Mr Rogers went to his GP. An x-ray showed a mass on the inside of his ribs.

Then in February, a CT scan revealed melanoma tumours had spread to bones, most notably his ribs, spine and skull. The tumour in his ribs was the size of his fist.

After a tissue test determined Mr Rogers has the gene mutation that makes his tumours susceptible to the medicine dabrafenib, his cancer specialist, Dr Mike McCrystal, asked drug maker GlaxoSmithKline to accept him into its free programme to receive the pills. It took GSK around seven weeks to agree.

"I went to Australia on a family holiday and I was taking two pills in the morning and two pills in the evening. After three days I noticed that the [chest] lump was getting smaller. After six days I couldn't feel it at all.

"A month ago I had a CT scan and there was no cancer in my body."

Mr Rogers has had side-effects: a rash, several squamous cell carcinomas (burned off his skin by a dermatologist), and ongoing chills and fevers, every six weeks or so. The cancer had been causing a lot of pain. "Getting in and out of chairs was difficult. Now I feel back to normal. I feel as healthy as I ever have."

But Mr Rogers, while revelling in his reprieve, knows he still has a terminal disease.

"Dabrafenib only works as long as your body lets it work. My immune system could decide it doesn't want dabrafenib to work any more at any stage, in which case my cancer could grow back."

Mr Rogers said his diagnosis had caused a lot of grief in his family.

"I've got two kids - a 14-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son - and my wife. We had a couple of months of crying and being upset, as you do."

And his experience has reinforced the sun-safe message for him.

"If anyone's got [a fair complexion] like me, they should be staying out of the sun and wearing sunscreen."

- NZ Herald

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