SoCal 95-year-old beats the odds after overcoming COVID and melanoma: 'I'm glad I survived it'

Rita Kellerman was treated successfully for melanoma using a modified herpes simplex virus that helps wake up the immune system.
ORANGE, Calif. (KABC) -- One year ago, as many people were trying to figure out how they were going to survive a global pandemic, 95-year-old Rita Kellerman was undergoing treatment for malignant melanoma when she and two of her grandsons contracted COVID-19.

"I got it and we think she got it, and then my brother contracted it right after," said Shawn Devin, Kellerman's grandson.

Kellerman ended up recovering, but her young grandson, Ryan, died shortly after.

"That was real a shock to us," she said. "There was nothing you could do about it. It was just devastating."

During this same time, Kellerman was getting injected with another virus to fight the melanoma spreading across her face. Her physician, Dr. Tanya Nino with Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, said she began to develop modules in other parts of her body.

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"If we had not intervened in non-treatment, it probably would have metastasized all over," she said.

Nino treated Kellerman with a modified herpes simplex virus called T-VEC.

"We inject directly into the melanoma and it infects the melanoma cells," Nino explained.

This helps wake up the immune system. Cancer has a way of evading our body's defenses so this modified virus shines a spotlight directing your immune cells to get to work.

"It goes in and while fighting off the virus that also fights off the melanoma cells," said Nino. "So you develop antibody and your own body's immune system to fight off the cancer."

Due to the fact that it's a live virus, anyone who is pregnant or immunocompromised needs to be careful around Kellerman. The virus is injected in a patient every two weeks for about six months.

Nino said T-VEC is often paired with an immunotherapy drug such as Keytruda. The combination works in about a half of patients. T-VEC alone works in about 3 out of 10 patients, but in Kellerman's case, it melted away her malignant melanoma.

Now, Kellerman is cancer free.

After a tough two years, the grandmother is back to volunteering and giving back at a senior center.

"She fought COVID and beat COVID," said Nino. "And she beat her melanoma, at 95 years old".

Kellerman said she's simply grateful.

"I'm glad I survived it, and it really helped me, and as you can see - my face is still there!" she said.

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