Up until now, doctors had no treatment to prolong survival in people with advanced forms of melanoma, or melanoma that had spread to other parts of the body. But now, two new drugs being hailed as skin cancer breakthroughs have brought hope to people with the deadliest form of the disease.
Four pills a day gave Jim Corcoran a greater chance at a longer life.
He was diagnosed with late-stage skin cancer. The melanoma had spread to his internal organs. Current treatments wouldn't give Corcoran very long to live, but he got on a clinical trial for a new drug called vemurafenib.
"Truly about 80 percent of patients have benefited in some way with some form of tumor shrinkage," said Dr. Ravi Amaravadi, Abramson Cancer Center.
It targets a genetic mutation half of all melanoma patients have.
"These type of targeted therapies basically have much less side effects and are more targeted toward the cancer," said Dr. Vijay Trisal, City of Hope Medical Center.
Trisal says patients once given a few months to live could extend their survival one to two years. But eventually they develop a resistance.
"It's not a cure but these are small steps, these are baby steps," said Trisal.
Researchers at a cancer conference in Chicago also announced the latest in another new skin cancer drug, Yervoy, that received FDA approval in March.
Yervoy works by targeting the immune system to help it fight melanoma. Combined with chemotherapy, patients survive about two months longer.
Trisal says theoretically Yervoy and Vermurafenib could be combined.
"They target two separate areas, so if there is a cascade of effect on the body, you would block one of these at one place, and then boost the immune system, and both of them could work in concert and have a much better effect," said Trisal.
Possible side effects with Vemurafenib include rash and fatigue.
Jim Corcoran is among the 20 percent of patients who had another side effect: less-aggressive squamous cell skin cancers. He's had 100 growths removed so far, but says he'll gladly deal with that, compared to the melanoma.
"This drug, if it continues to work the way it is working, it is fantastic," said Corcoran.
Researchers say they've known about these gene mutations for a while but have only recently developed drugs that specifically target them.
And skin cancer isn't the only type of cancer this kind of targeted therapy may help.
The results are published the New England Journal of Medicine.