In 2001, Brad Aagard was diagnosed with melanoma on his lower lip. It was removed, and "we thought we'd gotten it," Brad says. A few years later, the melanoma spread to his right lung. He also developed a tumor in his brain unrelated to the melanoma. The tumors were removed through surgery, but Brad's doctors warned him the cancer was likely to return and gave him 12 months to live.
It would be four years until the melanoma showed up again, this time in his pancreas. Brad's local oncologist, Stephen Wallentine, MD, of Provo's Central Utah Clinic, referred him to Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) and Ken Grossmann, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist with HCI's Melanoma and Cutaneous Oncology Program.
"The cancer was so advanced, it was not a pretty picture," Brad says of his condition at the time. "I really was in a lot of pain. I felt like I was dying."
Brad describes Grossmann as being "cautiously optimistic" about his chances for survival. Grossmann presented two treatment options: a chemotherapy drug called ipilimumab or biochemotherapy. Biochemotherapy combines chemotherapy with immunotherapy, a treatment that stimulates the patient's own immune system.
Biochemo can be very toxic to the patient and can cause potentially dangerous side effects such as drops in blood pressure, fluid retention, and irregular heartbeat. "This requires careful monitoring and treatment when side effects occur," says Grossmann. That means biochemo must be given while the patient stays in the hospital, and it can only be given at expert centers with teams who have specific training in managing these side effects—such as HCI. In fact, HCI is the only facility in the state of Utah to offer biochemo.
Grossmann told Brad and his wife, Brenda, that the ipilimumab could have better long-term success, but that biochemotherapy would produce a faster response. Because the cancer was in such a critical location and was progressing quickly, Grossmann recommended the biochemotherapy despite its likely side effects. "We came together as a family and decided biochemotherapy would be the way to get some quick relief," says Brenda.
Brad underwent four treatments that each lasted a week. "The treatment was pretty intense," he says. But it ended up being the right choice. Today, Brad has no evidence of disease. "Biochemotherapy saved my life," he says. "It feels wonderful."
"We feel like we've been given a miracle," Brenda adds.
Since 2007 (when Brad was given 12 months to live), he and Brenda have taken a trip to Germany—something on Brad's bucket list—and have seen seven grandchildren born.
The Aagards attribute Brad's survival to HCI being "the top of the line in cancer treatment," says Brenda. Brad adds, "We're really grateful to Dr. Grossmann and to HCI. Without them, I wouldn't be here."
Grossmann further credits this success story to the collaboration with Wallentine, Brad's local oncologist, and is hopeful cooperation with other community oncologists continues. "Sharing patients between centers is essential to offering the best possible care for them and will no doubt enable more stories like this to emerge in the years to come," he says.
Learn more about melanoma in our cancer types and topics, or visit the Melanoma and Cutaneous Oncology Program webpages.