[3 MIN READ]
In this article:
- Metastatic melanoma begins in the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that determines skin color. It is the most dangerous and rare type of skin cancer.
- A Seattle resident with metastatic melanoma who was given four months to live more than a year and a half ago shares his success story.
- Innovative immunotherapy cancer treatment at Swedish Cancer Institute teaches the body’s immune system to identify and attack cancer cells.
Hearing the words, “you have four months left to live,” would put most anyone off their stride. For Greg Vogel, the prediction was yet another step in the cancer journey he started about 12 years ago. It was also incorrect. Thanks to the innovative care he received at the Swedish Cancer Institute, the 61-year-old Seattle resident is currently in full remission.
Greg was first diagnosed with melanoma in 2010. Treatment was successful for over a decade and Greg and his wife of more than 30 years, Sandi, thought the worst was behind them. Then Greg became ill while on vacation in Las Vegas.
“I collapsed twice on the day we were getting ready to leave,” he says. “When we got back to Seattle, we went right to the emergency room. And that’s when they told me I had a mass on my brain.”
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer caused by changes in the cells that make skin color pigment, or melanin. Metastatic melanoma means the cancer cells have spread to other areas of the body. The condition is the deadliest type of skin cancer. It is also the rarest.
“There are about 100,000 cases of melanoma in the United States every year,” says Kelly Paulson, M.D., Ph.D., a medical oncologist with Swedish Cancer Institute who treated Greg’s cancer. “About 15% of melanomas have spread beyond the skin when they are diagnosed.”
Recognize the warning signs
One method for recognizing the warning signs of skin cancer is to think about them in terms of the ABCs. Some common indicators to look for include:
- Asymmetry – mole or section of skin with two halves that are different sizes or shapes from each other
- Border – irregular, wavy or notched edges around the affected area
- Color – multiple or uneven color distribution throughout the affected area
- Diameter – an area larger than one-fourth of an inch or the size of a pencil eraser
- Evolution – the area changes in appearance or size
However, if the melanoma metastasizes, the symptoms may differ depending on where the cancer has spread. Signs it could be metastatic melanoma include:
- Painful or swollen lymph nodes
- Unexplained weight loss
- Difficulty breathing or persistent cough
- Irritability and volatile moods
- Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
“I was having symptoms for a full year and I didn’t realize it,” says Greg.
“He had severe depression. And his anger was so incredibly intense. I did not understand what was happening,” says Sandi.
“The doctors told us Greg had stage four melanoma that had spread to his brain,” says Sandi. “They said they could try to help him live longer but nothing was curative – a word I learned and learned to hate.”
“I had my surgery on March 3, 2021,” says Greg. “And then I started immunotherapy a couple of weeks later. It was a really quick timeline. It was a whirlwind.”
Immunotherapy is a form of cancer treatment that helps the body identify and destroy cancer cells by making them more visible to the immune system. It can be an effective treatment that encourages and speeds healing.
Greg underwent a form of immunotherapy that taught his immune system how to attack the cancerous melanoma cells. The leading-edge treatment, combined with surgery and radiation, was a resounding success.
“Immunotherapy taught Greg’s body how to fight the cancer off. So even though it was stage four cancer that spread to his brain, it’s now in full remission,” says Dr. Paulson.
Greg Vogel during his treatment for melanoma. Photos courtesy Greg and Sandi Vogel.
“Dr. Paulson is the most amazing woman. We just can’t say enough about her,” says Sandi. “She told us, ‘I’m going to try this and that. And if that doesn’t work, I’ve got something in my back pocket.’ And it did work. She gave us hope. And more time.”
Learn more and find a provider
If you have questions about cancer, contact the Swedish Cancer Institute, which offers a range of services, including immunotherapy, targeted therapy, surgery, radiation treatment, social work and palliative care.
Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction, and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.
Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.
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