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Power of immunotherapy saves local man’s life

SEATTLE — Far away from the buzz of city noise, along the open road in Fall City, a cyclist finds solace.

“I think about what it feels like — the wind in my face, the sound. I feel how lucky I am to have gotten to this place.”

It’s here, peppered with farms, in the shadow of the Cascades, David Dunnington reflects on his life’s journey.

And the detour it took when cancer came into the picture in 2012.

“I was diagnosed with acral lentiginous melanoma. It’s a special kind of melanoma, it’s a particularly aggressive melanoma.

“Five percent of people get it. It was in the bottom of my foot. It was not caused by sun.”

For 2 1/2 years, David and his wife, Janet, along with their two sons Nathan and Spencer, fought the cancer. David went through rounds of traditional therapies, including chemo and radiation.

But the disease quickly spread to his lymph nodes, and a sore on his foot wouldn't heal. An avid outdoors man who loved to bike and hike had to make the difficult decision to amputate his left foot.

"I never thought I'd die, I was worried about it. We took it day by day."

About the same time David was running out of options, a friend referred him to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Formed in 2001, SCCA is a cancer hospital combining the skills, research and expertise from three of the leading cancer organizations in the world -- Fred Hutch, Seattle Children's and UW Medicine.

David qualified for a Phase Three clinical trial using a drug-based immunotherapy to fight his cancer.

"Immunotherapy is a way to treat cancer that relies on our body's resources."

Dr. Shailender Bhatia is an oncologist at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. He says immunotherapy has been around for years. But it's in the last decade that we've seen an explosion in the number, type and effectiveness of this lifesaving treatment.

"We can stimulate the immune system in a number of different ways, we can take a person's immune cells out, expand them and give them back to them," Bhatia said.

"The challenge has been that it did not work frequently enough for us to use it reliably. Fortunately, recently we have had a number of new drugs, which work really well and quite reliably."

In David's case, after just a few doses of immunotherapy, using an experimental drug, he got the good news -- his tumors had shrunk by half.

"There's such a relief that something worked," David said. "Something finally worked, and this may work."

David knows he's lucky -- lucky to be alive. Lucky to have his family by his side. Lucky to be back to enjoying the outdoors and the activities he loves. And it's in these moments, he says he's actually thankful for the cancer.

"There's a title that runs around in my head about how cancer has cured me, about being unselfish and being more of a human being. Maybe I wasn't aware of that in the midst of my career and looking out for my family. It was me, me, me. Now it's maybe we and us and there's a bigger picture."

This August, David will suit up in orange for his third Obliteride. He'll ride as a cancer survivor, alongside so many others, to raise money for the lifesaving research happening at Fred Hutch -- a partner of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. It's research that saved his life.

He'll ride the 100 miles as an amputee, something he says he hardly even thinks about now. And he'll ride -- because he can.

And what will he think about while on the bike ride?

"I think about what it feels like -- the wind in my face, the sound. I feel how lucky I am to have gotten to this place. I feel a sense of freedom because the bike is so light and you can go 20 to 25 miles an hour.

"When I'm riding my bike, I'm thinking -- I'm back. I'm thinking maybe I'm going to get through this."

The drug used in David's clincal trial has now been approved by the FDA and is being used in immunotherapy treatment for other cancer patients.

David says being referred to SCCA saved his life. He says it it wasn't for the team there -- willing to try everything -- he wouldn't be alive.

If you'd like to learn more about the SCCA and the clinical trials underway, just click here.