Mark  Laing 2017 Race For Research Honoree

Hi, my name is Mark Laing. I live in Lafayette, Colorado, with my wife Erika and two sons Kellan and Aaron. I want to share my story in hopes you will consider joining the Race For Research to benefit Colorado cancer research...because the more we know, the more we can hope for a cure.

The First Diagnosis

In the fall of 2009, when our son Kellan was 3-years-old and our youngest son Aaron was 1 1/2, I embarked on an intensive training program for fitness. I have always been physically fit and played rugby growing up in my home country of England. I tell you this because I have always been health conscious and taken care of myself, but as we often find, cancer does not discriminate. During my training sessions, I began to notice a red spot on my back that seemed easily irritated and sometimes bled. I scheduled an appointment with my dermatologist who looked at it but didn’t think it was anything to worry about. Despite this, he later told me that something in the back of his mind said to biopsy it. A week later, my mum was visiting from England when the phone rang. It was my dermatologist calling to tell me that the biopsy came back and was positive for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. My mum flew back to England on Thursday and I had surgery the next day. After a full skin excision, the tissue was analyzed. My doctors were worried about the depth of the melanoma and worried that it may have metastasized to the lymph nodes. They conducted a sentinel lymph node biopsy and unfortunately found this to be the case. I was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma.

Treatment

After consultations around the US, I decided to have four treatments of bio-chemotherapy under the care of melanoma oncologist, Dr. Rene Gonzalez at the University of Colorado. This was in-patient chemotherapy for five days at a time. I had four cycles of this as well as surgery to remove all the lymph nodes in my right shoulder where the positive lymph node was found. As anyone who has been through chemotherapy knows, it is not an easy process. This one seemed especially intense as I had to stay in the hospital during the entire week of each treatment due to the possibility of dangerously low blood pressure. This was difficult on me and also on my family. Thankfully, I had my family in England as well as Erika's family in the U.S. to help. We also had lots of support from neighbors and friends. My treatment ended in 2010 and I had routine check-ups for the next several years.

The Dreaded Recurrence

Anyone who’s fought cancer knows what it's like to live in the shadow of a possible reoccurrence, but we did our best to move on with our busy life and young family. In late 2011, however, we faced another challenge. A routine PET scan confirmed the melanoma was back and it was now Stage 4. Many people do not realize how deadly melanoma can be or that it doesn't confine itself to the skin. In my case, the small, barely detectable spot on my lower back had metastasized and traveled to my lung. A biopsy confirmed it was indeed melanoma. I was tested for a specific gene mutation of melanoma which might have given me an additional treatment option. In the end, however, I was offered one drug, named Yervoy, which had only recently gained FDA approval. Even with just this one treatment, however, I was lucky. Even just a few years before the outlook would have been direr. The typical survival rate for melanoma until these new drugs came along was less than 10% at the one year mark. Thankfully for me, years of research was starting to pay off.

A New Treatment

Yervoy, also known as ipilimumab (ipi), is one of the first cancer treatments that uses the body's own immune system to fight cancer. Doctors had hypothesized for some time that if you could "supercharge," the immune system it might be equipped to kill tumors in the body. The problem, however, is that the body often doesn't recognize cancer cells because they are a product of our own body's cell development gone awry. In the case of Yervoy, doctors theorized the drug might lift the veil, so to speak, off the cancer so the body could recognize invading tumors and use the immune system to fight it. Yervoy is administered through a slow infusion, about 90 minutes. This occurs over 4 treatments, each 3 weeks apart.

After completing the four rounds of treatment, a scan showed that the tumor had actually increased in size. My doctor noted, though, that this is sometimes a good indication that the tumor is inflamed due to the immune system attacking it. After three months, in the summer of 2012, I was scanned again and happy to learn that the tumor now seemed to be shrinking. This continued through the remaining half of 2012 and into 2013 with scans every three months.

No Evidence of Disease!

Then in October of 2013, the CT scan showed no evidence of disease, the tumor had disappeared. Scans over the next two years continued to show no return of cancer. I am now on annual scans with dermatologist appointments every six months.

I cannot tell you how lucky I and my family feel that my treatment worked and I have been given the possibility of a cure. Not everyone gets that chance. I also know, however, that it was not just luck. My treatment with Dr. Gonzalez and his team at the University of Colorado made a huge difference. I cannot underestimate the need to have a team who advocate, support and treat the patient and their family. If my family had not had that support and pulled together, it would have been much more difficult. During my journey, I was often inspired by others and by little signs that seemed to tell me everything would be okay. One song for example that has inspired many, Don't Stop Believin by Journey, remains an inspiration today. You cannot give up hope, you must advocate for yourself, and regardless of your situation stay as positive as possible against the odds.

Don't Stop Believin!

I know that many people have experienced the hardship of cancer and have fought bravely whether they have survived or not. It is, for this reason, I feel humbled and honored to be this year’s 2017 Race Honoree. I couldn’t have made it through the past eight years without an amazing family, friends and the incredible team under Dr. Gonzalez. His team and other oncologists who work tirelessly with the latest research, pharmaceutical advances through companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, and treatments such as Yervoy, give hope for patients fighting cancer. 

Words from Dr. Gonzalez

Here’s some words from Dr. Gonzalez about how treatments have advanced since Yervoy came to market with FDA approval back in 2011.

 “Seven new drugs have been approved for advanced melanoma and the medial survival rate is now measured in years, rather than months. These belong to several new classes of drugs. Targeted agents such as BRAF (Zelboraf and Tafinlar) and MEK inhibitors (Mekinist and Cotellic), anti PD-1 antibodies (Keytruda and Opdivo). A genetically modified herpes virus designed to replicate within tumors and produce an immunostimulatory protein called GM-CSF (Imlygic).

 New combinations of these drugs are proving to be more effective than single agents and have revolutionized the treatment of melanoma. These drugs are not chemotherapy and the research in melanoma has pioneered the way to similar applications in other cancers.”

I know first-hand how important this research is. Please register for the race and support your fellow Coloradans and don’t stop believin’.