A Survivor’s Experience With Melanoma and Immunotherapy

This article summarizes Bryant Wieneke’s experiences with melanoma, which he had shared with Cancer.Net in 2017.

Have you seen the movie As Good As It Gets? In the American romantic comedy from 1997, Melvin (Jack Nicholson) accuses Carol (Helen Hunt) of removing him from her life. That’s how it felt when Bryant Wieneke first learned he had stage IV melanoma. It was May 2016 and cancer had plucked him and his wife, Elvira, away from their lives and forced them into an unfamiliar territory overwhelmed with not only medical professionals and constant blood draws, but also with fear, confusion, and heartbreak.

Suddenly, cancer had complete control of their lives. It didn’t help when they saw the survival rates for melanoma, which were as low as 27 percent when it had metastasized or spread to other organs in the body, as his melanoma had. He underwent more screening exams, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), and a visit to a cancer center for a second opinion. All the while, the aggressive cancer continued to wreak havoc on his body, but he and his wife had to endure as they dealt with paperwork and insurance claims.

Discovering Immunotherapy for Melanoma

The couple spent a considerable amount of time researching melanoma, which ultimately yielded an interesting find. Breakthrough treatments have completed clinical trials, and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved new drugs for the treatment of metastatic melanoma.

Specifically, the FDA had approved immunotherapy drugs, which were showing astounding results in many patients struggling with melanoma, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The couple had no idea whether Wieneke would benefit from the medication or if his insurance would cover them, but they kept hearing more and more about their successes in both clinical trials and the real world of cancer care.

Initial Stages of Treatment With Immunotherapy

The moment Wieneke acquired approval for treatment with nivolumab (Opdivo) and ipilimumab (Yervoy) gave the couple hope and a sense of empowerment. Though they never completely lost hope in the first place, they had felt like the odds were stacked against them. Now, they felt that Wieneke had a fighting chance against cancer.

Immunotherapy is so powerful and effective because it does not combat cancer directly the way chemotherapy and many other conventional treatments do. Instead, it stimulates the immune system to recognize and destroy the cancer cells. Once the immunotherapy drugs were coursing through Wieneke’s system, he knew his immune system was doing all the hard work.

In Wieneke’s own words, “It was incredibly empowering to realize that my own body was no longer a bystander in my cancer treatment. It was working with a singular purpose: to rid my body of cancer cells.”

Acknowledging the Side Effects

Wieneke and his wife understood the possibility of potential complications or side effects, as any form of treatment had them. His first four sessions comprised a combination of treatments, where doctors would give him Opdivo and Yervoy right after the other in a process that took between three to four hours.

Wieneke reported the following side effects of immunotherapy for melanoma:

    • Exhaustion and unproductiveness. He admitted spending most of his post-treatment time doing nothing but lying on the couch and staring at the TV, but he was fine with it.
    • An itchy sensation. He developed a rash that became itchier over time, but “that was OK, too,” he said.
    • Nausea and lack of appetite. He experienced persistent nausea that prevented him from eating as much as he used to. He described it as “it was like we were in a boat, rowing against the tide, but if we kept rowing, if we did not give up, we were confident we would find calmer waters and maybe even land.”
  • Vomiting. During his third combination treatment, Wieneke experienced lightheadedness that caused him to begin vomiting.
  • Unintended weight loss. Eating “became a chore” and he could no longer eat solid foods because they would often come right back up. As a result, he went from being 130 lbs to 120 lbs.

Wieneke’s doctors closely monitored his condition. Despite the side effects, they assured him that his vital signs were good. Moreover, his epidermal tumors, including a baseball-sized one under his right arm, had already disappeared.

Since immunotherapy was new — and combination treatments were even newer — predicting the complications for one individual patient was difficult. Despite his side effects, his vital signs remained stable, and his cancer care team was convinced he could handle the upcoming fourth combination treatment. And, indeed, he withstood it.

Learn more about immunotherapy’s side effects and how to manage them.

Feeling Better

Wieneke has returned to many of the activities he enjoyed, including going on regular walks with his wife, playing a round of par-3 golf every other week, and taking bike rides. He also reported regaining his appetite and having the freedom to eat whatever he wanted, and occasionally have a beer or glass of wine with dinner.

Though he’s finished with his combination treatments, Wieneke still receives Opdivo alone every other week. “Every morning, Elvira and I still wake up with the realization that I have cancer,” said the survivor. “I am still here and feeling better all the time. That’s enough for now.”

How Is Bryant Wieneke Today?

Five years after his diagnosis, Wieneke continues to grow stronger. He even wrote and published a book about his journey with melanoma. “Writing helps me understand and focus on things that are happening in my life,” he said. “When you’re trying to understand something, you don’t realize what you don’t know until you try to explain it to someone else.” You can check out his Facebook page for more updates

Immunotherapy at New Hope Unlimited

One of the many treatment innovations we offer to cancer patients is immunotherapy. If you are interested in this powerful new form of cancer treatment that uses the immune system to attack cancer cells, contact us at 480-757-6573 to schedule a consultation and experience tomorrow’s top treatments today.

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