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Gerald’s personal story

Gabriel Berger
As a “Baby Boomer,” sun care was not part of my concerns growing up. I was active in multiple outdoor sports, and sun tan products, not sun block products, were all I (and my friends) used. Getting a tan was the aim each year. With a fair complexion, I got red before tan. I’m sure that my actions then were a major contributor to the diagnosis of melanoma in my later life.

Through a self-examination in September 2008, I found an abnormal growth on my sternum. I went to my dermatologist. The growth was biopsied and diagnosed as a melanoma with a depth of 2.7 mm. I had a wide-excision procedure to check the margins, which proved negative.

I was referred to a medical (melanoma specialist) oncologist for observation. Due to depth of the melanoma, the doctor’s initial assessment was a 50% chance of survival in the next five years. After 18 months, a scan showed two lesions in each lung. A surgical procedure confirmed metastatic melanoma. The lesions were eradicated by cyber knife treatments.

One year later, a follow-up scan showed new, multiple lesions in both lungs. I started a series of chemotherapies that kept the cancer under control for more than three years. However, I had an allergic reaction to one of the treatments and was hospitalized with pneumonitis. After I recovered and took a break from treatment, my oncologist (in 2015) was able to get me into an immunotherapy trial at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. (But as I started the trial, an MRI scan showed the cancer had spread to my brain.) The trial regimen included having a lesion surgically removed from my lung and then separating the cancer cells from the T-cells in the lesion. The T-cells were cloned in a lab over three months; after seven days of chemo that took my immune system to near zero, the cloned T-cells (estimated as 7.6 billion cells) were reinserted into my body, and then I had three days of follow-up chemo. All of this left me extremely weak and required multiple blood transfusions and platelet infusions.

I had additional follow-up chemo after returning home, but unfortunately, I had an allergic reaction to the chemo that resulted in another hospital stay. The good news is the immunotherapy trial worked. It took over a year, but the cancer is gone!

There were a few side affects that I should mention: I lost my hair twice, and in 2016 I suffered a stroke (from which I have since recovered). I’m doing fine now and am back playing golf, going to the gym and enjoying life.

My oncologist told me that (in his more than 50 years of his medical practice) my recovery is truly a miracle. And I feel truly blessed!

In conclusion, my “journey” could well have been avoided if, earlier in my life, I would have known about the dangers that unprotected exposure to the sun could have to my skin and ultimately my life. With today’s efforts to educate the public about the effects of sun exposure, we have the opportunity to reduce and hopefully eliminate the incidence of skin cancer. It’s never too early to start protecting yourself and your family. The quote “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” has never been more appropriate regarding skin cancer. I’m very fortunate to have survived my “journey,” and I hope no one else will have to do the same.