The day after Susan Shorter’s last immunotherapy session, she and her husband Brian got in their caravan and headed off to the holiday home they’d never had a chance to see.
The couple had bought land on Macleay Island in Queensland, without ever having visited it. It was a purchase made in the depths of Victoria’s COVID-19 lockdown, while yearning for someplace remote with beaches.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned.
In November 2021, the 65-year-old Ballarat resident discovered a lump on her left ribcage. Her doctors recommended an x-ray and then a CT scan. The results weren’t good – there was a significant mass and a few spots on her lungs as well.
Dr Wasek Faisal from the Ballarat Regional Integrated Cancer Centre knew Susan well: she’d been his hairdresser for years. He had the difficult task of telling her that she had Stage 4 cancer.
A biopsy of the biggest tumour suggested that it was a sarcoma, but Dr Faisal noted something strange about it. He referred Susan to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne for further tests, as well as radiation therapy.
Brian drove Susan to Peter Mac every day for three weeks. A second biopsy indicated that the tumour could be a melanoma, so the doctors recommended genomic sequencing of the tumour. Genomic testing makes it possible to search for hundreds of mutations in a cancer, giving oncologists the opportunity to apply more specific treatments.
The genomic test confirmed that the cancer was a very rare type of melanoma. Susan returned to Ballarat in April, to commence a targeted immunotherapy course. This was a combination of two drugs, administered over four sessions, every three weeks.
The results stunned even the oncologists in Ballarat Cancer Centre and Peter Mac. The largest tumour, which was 16cm when Susan began treatment, had shrunk to 9cm after two sessions of immunotherapy, and was gone after four sessions. The spots in Susan’s lungs had vanished, too.
A month later, Dr Faisal was able to give Susan better news: there was no active cancer in her body. She will have ongoing PET scans and is continuing her immunotherapy course, but it’s now focussed on supporting her immune system to fight off any recurrence of the cancer.
With four weeks to spare between immunotherapy treatments, Susan and Brian finally took the chance to get away, see the land they’d bought, and plan for future holidays full of sunshine, beaches and golf.