Advanced Skin Cancer is No Longer a Death Sentence for Some

Advances in immunotherapy treatment continue to save lives

It started out as a mole-like spot that appeared on his lower left leg in 2012. But observing unusual skin growths was nothing new for someone who has been practicing medicine for decades, and this spot seemed innocuous. The only difference in this case was that he was the one being examined.

“As a physician, you put your blinders on and say ‘No, it can’t be me,’” says Dr. Tom Southerland, a family practice doctor and military veteran who would eventually be diagnosed with a malignant melanoma. Initially, the spot was removed, but four years later it reappeared. So the plan of attack for the former U.S. Army flight surgeon became more aggressive. He began an immunotherapy treatment called Keytruda, that targets melanoma. The drug was initially investigated at The START Center, before receiving FDA approval.

“As we learn more about what causes cancer, we’re able to treat the specific mechanisms that lead to cancer,” says START Surgical Oncologist Dr. Alex Miller.  “The way we treat cancer now is revolutionary.”

Dr. Southerland will complete his treatment this fall. Oncologists are impressed with his results and believe his prognosis is promising.

“Years ago when I started my practice, if someone was diagnosed with advanced melanoma it was a death sentence,” says Southerland, who spent 22 years in the military and was deployed across the world to places like Bosnia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Korea and the Ukraine. He’s thankful for the timing and the progress in treatment.

 “We can effectively treat a higher percentage of patients,” says Dr. Miller. We can give them a better quality of life.”

Dr. Alexander R. Miller is an experienced surgical oncologist specializing in breast cancer, skin cancer (melanoma), pancreatic and gastric cancer, as well as sarcoma. He has devoted his career to cancer research, education and treatment. He trained in cancer surgery at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and spent over 10 years in medical school and surgical residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He also performed cancer research at the UCLA School of Medicine, and received his undergraduate degree at Harvard. He has received many awards for excellence in research, education and patient care. He has been a principal or collaborating investigator for several research studies involving cancer treatment, genetic testing and psychosocial experiences of patients receiving cancer care. His work has been published in more than 40 publications.