Henrik Madsen is a successful, 63-year-old engineer who constructs multi-million dollar manufacturing facilities all over the world. In the past 10 years, his job has taken him from Denmark to China to Chile, and back again. For much of this time, he was being treated for metastatic melanoma, having first been diagnosed back in 2003.
Eventually, he found his way to Los Angeles, where Antoni Ribas, M.D., Ph.D., of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, was conducting a clinical trial of a new immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab (Keytruda), made by Merck. The drug is a checkpoint inhibitor that works by binding to and blocking an immune-suppressive molecule on T cells. By “taking the brakes off” T cells, the drug helps boost the immune response against cancer.
While being treated with the immunotherapy, Henrik was able to continue working and doing what he loves: traveling and seeing the world. TheAnswertoCancer (TheA2C) spoke with Henrik about his ongoing battle with cancer and how he has managed to remain optimistic and vital in the face of a devastating diagnosis.
I went to a specialist at a hospital in Copenhagen. He said that the only way they can cure malignant melanoma is by surgery. “As long as we can use the knife, you can survive,” he said. So they surgically removed the area around the malignant melanoma and also a number of lymph nodes in the armpit and the groin. I was hospitalized for almost a month.
From 2007 to 2009, I went through four surgeries to remove cancer nodes in my lungs. In 2010, they told me that there was a further progression. At that time I was offered treatment with interferon and interleukin-2. The interferon/interleukin-2 treatment is a bastard. It means you are put into an artificial flu for one week with high fever. Then you have two weeks of rest before doing it all again. With that treatment, the cancer was reduced, but there were still traces of cancer left.
Springtime 2012, just shortly after my last treatment in Denmark, I went to Chile. I was head of a project down there to build a manufacturing facility worth roughly $200 million. I was looking for treatment alternatives and ended up getting in contact with Dr. Antoni Ribas at UCLA in California. I was living close by in Santiago, Chile, so I jumped on the plane to Los Angeles from Santiago. It was about a 14- to 15-hour flight.
Dr. Ribas told me that a new clinical trial of the drug MK-3475 [pembrolizumab] had just opened and asked me if I was open to joining the trial. I said that I was. I joined the MK-3475 protocol in October 2012.
The main side effect was that I accumulated one-and-a-half gallons of liquid in my body next to the lungs. You can imagine that put a lot of stress and strain on my body and was painful. So I was hospitalized for a couple of days, but I still was able to go to Los Angeles for the treatment.
Keep on working. Be open and honest with colleagues and tell them what you’re up against. If you play with open cards, you will get support. That's what I learned. I know a lot of people who do not speak out about cancer, particularly in a job situation. But I say, since one-third of all of us living on this planet will be hit by cancer, I think we should have an open and honest approach.
I have a simple answer: yes. Compared to the other treatments I've been through—and this is my eighth outbreak of cancer since 2007—I would recommend this treatment because you're not hospitalized, and the side effects are much less harsh. Furthermore, the reduction of the tumors is significant, much better than the previous treatments.
There's one comment I will add on, and that is this: you can make a choice. Do you control the cancer or does the cancer control you? That's actually a little bit brutal, and it’s different from person to person. My approach was to say: I have cancer, but I want to have a good life. I want to do what I want to do. And then if the cancer pops up again, then from there on I will try to do my best to survive it. Cancer is not only physical, but also mentally a terrible disease.
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*Immunotherapy results may vary from patient to patient.
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