As co-host of the popular morning radio show “Bax and O’Brien” on Rock 102 (WAQY) in Springfield for the past 15 years, John O’Brien has covered countless topics and conducted numerous interviews, including a monthly segment featuring Baystate Medical Center physicians discussing health topics. He never expected the subject would eventually be his own health struggle.
O’Brien noticed a mole on his back that appeared “out of nowhere” in early 2012. When his dermatologist suggested he have it removed and biopsied, O’Brien wasn’t that concerned – until he got the call from the doctor that he should come in to the office immediately to discuss the biopsy’s findings.
“My doctor told me I did have melanoma and was going to need to see a surgical oncologist and medical oncologist and schedule surgery,” says O’Brien. “At first, it was like a death punch. I went through a period of fatalistic thinking. But although I’m not normally a very positive person, I began to focus more on others in worse situations than I was, and my attitude began to change.”
Melanoma is the least common but deadliest form of skin cancer and can be challenging to treat once it has spread to other parts of the body. Close to 80,000 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed in the United States each year. Providers at the Baystate Regional Cancer Program see over 250 melanoma cases per year and that number is increasing.
Dr. Richard Arenas, chief, Surgical Oncology at the Baystate Regional Cancer Program, removed O’Brien’s melanoma in March 2012. Surgery revealed the melanoma had spread to a lymph node, and he had a second surgery to remove additional lymph nodes a month later.
“From the time I received the diagnosis, there was never a time I thought I should go to Boston to get treatment,” Mr. O’Brien says. “I was always satisfied with the people at Baystate and the treatment. Everyone was professional and easy to talk to. It’s obviously a very well-run operation.”
After learning that 19 additional lymph nodes removed had come back cancer-free, Mr. O’Brien began treatment with interferon, a commonly prescribed chemotherapy drug for stage 3 melanoma.
Early diagnosis is critical for a good outcome for patients. Baystate offers two subspecialty trained dermatopathologists, Drs. Jean Henneberry and Wayne Duke.
“As dermatopathologists, we recognize the nuances of the field,” says Henneberry. “Our diagnoses must be accurate as we are dealing with a very dangerous malignancy, which when left untreated can lead to serious morbidity and death.”
Surgical treatment of melanoma has changed little in recent years, but what’s different is the management of the disease for those patients in whom the melanoma has progressed.
New targeted therapies attack melanoma at the cellular level and are proving to be more effective. Researchers have learned that melanoma responds to a targeting or altering of the immune system. For the treatment of stage 3 or stage 4 melanomas, immunotherapy is offering promise, and Baystate is participating in clinical trials on the forefront of melanoma treatment.
A new state-of-the art radiotherapy treatment, known as skin surface brachytherapy, is currently being validated and will be offered in the coming months for patients with advanced disease.
“In the past, we would treat early stage melanoma at Baystate, and when it spread beyond the skin, there weren’t a lot of other therapies available. Our patients with more advanced disease would have to travel for treatment,” says Arenas. “Now when they do travel for another opinion, they are often told they can receive the same treatments right here at Baystate, closer to home.”
Baystate’s team also treats patients with a host of other skin conditions that may have a significant impact on patients’ lives, which if misdiagnosed, could lead to serious complications and/ or unnecessary treatment or lifestyle implications. These include more common skin cancers like basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, and non-neoplastic inflammatory skin conditions, such as lupus and autoimmune bullous disease.
For more information, contact the Baystate Regional Cancer Program at 413-794-9338.
An Ounce – Or Two – of Prevention
- Protect your skin from sunburn while outside this summer and while traveling in your car.
- Choose an SPF of at least 30; the curve of protection drops off after 30.
- Apply often throughout the day, about every 90 minutes if you’re outside.
- Apply an adequate amount: about a shot glass full (1-2 oz).
- Apply to all exposed areas. Don't forget your ears, scalp, and tops of your feet.
- Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.
- Wear a hat to protect your face.