Hope and Heirlooms
A patient story of helping, healing and leaving a legacy
Christine Knight's family has always joked she was born with a needle in her hand. She began sewing at age 5 and has continued crafting her entire life. Now 65, she has been loyal to quilting since her 30's. Like many wives and mothers with full-time jobs, her hobby came second to her busy life.
That changed in fall 2013. While on a business trip, she noticed a difference in a mole on her back. She was proactive and called a dermatologist at home in Jackson, Mich.
"I was able to have it removed and didn't worry much about it," she says. "Then the nurse called a few days later and said the news was not good and I needed to notify my family."
Knight had melanoma, the most serious of skin cancers that develops in the cells that produce skin pigment. After visiting the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center for a larger excision, she learned her cancer had spread.
What Knight wanted was hope, but the diagnosis of stage 4 melanoma left her with limited treatment options for a cancer that often does not respond well to chemotherapy or other current therapies.
"That week, I was a basket case," Knight says. "I reverted back to my faith. I had heard that people with stage 4 melanoma, your chances of being around very long are pretty slim."
Knight found the hope she was looking for at her first appointment with Christopher Lao, M.D., at the Multidisciplinary Melanoma Clinic on Christmas Eve 2013. He believed Knight might be a good fit for an immunotherapy clinical trial.
Immunotherapy is a growing area of cancer research and treatment that uses the body's immune system to fight or kill cancer cells.
"The breakthroughs in cancer immunotherapy have surpassed anything we have had to date. When it works, it can control the disease for years and possibly forever," Lao says. "We have worked hard to bring the best therapies to U-M and I met Chris at the right time. It was a perfect fit and I'm thrilled she agreed to participate."
Baseline tests before she could begin in the trial included MRI, biopsy and CT scans. Her first day as a trial participant involved having blood drawn, a visit with Lao, and a variety of tests. Her trial was double blind, meaning she did not know which drugs she was receiving, or in what combination.
"I never had any reservations about the clinical trial," Knight says. "I felt it was my only option because of the type of cancer I had. Some people feel like guinea pigs, but for me it wasn't about that. For me, the disease is much worse than any side effects I might have from the medication."
Knight's cancer had spread to her chest, abdomen and lymph nodes under her arm. A bone in her back was also affected. After six cycles of infusion treatments over a period of five months, her scans became free of cancer. Her side effects were minimal, including some fatigue and itching.
"My bone was very responsive to treatment and has completely healed. I do not have cancer now. I still don't know which combination of drugs I received. I won't know unless my cancer comes back."
During her cancer experience, Knight's outlook on life changed. She decided she should find time to have fun every day and enjoy each day to the fullest. With clear scans since April 2015, she goes to her home quilting studio every day for at least an hour. On weekends, she'll spend the whole day sewing and laughing with friends.
"It makes you feel so hopeful to understand how many people are being helped by cancer research. Because of this research and my participation, people might be able to live longer. I feel really honored to be part of a solution," she says.
~~Christopher Lao, M.D.
Knight continues to work at Eaton, her employer of 38 years. She has created a quilt for everyone in her family. She also shares her craft and teaches quilting. She visited the Michigan State Capitol with Lao to share her experiences on the clinical trial.
"Cancer therapy across the board continues to improve and immunotherapy happens to be one that can work in a variety of different cancers. We still have a long way to go to improve what we do so that eventually there is an effective treatment for everyone," Lao says.
Continue reading the Spring, 2016 issue of Thrive.
Learn more about melanoma treatment at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center
If you're interested in making an appointment with the Multidisciplinary Clinic, please call 800-865-1125.
Visit the Skin Cancer Program website
Learn more about clinical trials:
Learn more about advances in cancer treatment:
Read other cancer survivors' stories