Few moments are as immediately life-altering as an unexpected cancer diagnosis.
As a patient, it’s absolutely essential to surround yourself with medical specialists whom you trust. No one understands this story as well as Helen Lucero, a cancer survivor who traveled more than 1,300 miles time and time again to continue her treatment with medical oncologist Alan Tan, MD.
A resident of Gallup, New Mexico, Helen had a wound on her heel that didn’t seem to be healing. After six biopsies, her doctor told her she had melanoma — and that she had six months to live unless she had her leg amputated all the way to her kneecap.
Searching for solutions
According to Helen’s daughter, Alisha Lucero, the news was utterly devastating.
“My mother became extremely depressed after the diagnosis,” Alisha says. “She wouldn’t even go into public, and we felt like there had to be more options for her. At night, I would search online to try to figure out a way to get her help.”
That’s when Alisha found Tan, who specializes in skin cancer and was working at a hospital in Phoenix at the time. After reaching out, Alisha was able to get her mother a meeting with the doctor within three days.
“Helen came to me for a second opinion in December 2019 for a melanoma in her heel that was pretty significant,” says Tan. “Her doctor in New Mexico told her that she needed to have the foot amputated, but I thought we could shrink it down with immunotherapy and see what kind of response we get.”
When she heard the news that there was a strategy to treat the cancer without a major amputation, Helen was elated. She had finally received the hopeful news she’d been waiting for since her diagnosis.
“Dr. Tan sat with me as I told him my story,” Helen says. “I cried as I described my experience, and he looked me in the eye and told me ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to save your leg.’ I thought, with God on one side and Dr. Tan on the other, we’re going to get through this.”
Over the following six months, Tan successfully used immunotherapy to shrink the size of the lesion. Using an antibody called pembrolizumab that helps regulate the immune system’s response and allows the body to kill cancer cells, the treatment gave Helen’s body the boost it needed to fight off the melanoma. Over the following eight months, Tan observed the tumor shrink and improve.
Although the treatment was going well, Tan was planning a cross-country move after accepting a position at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to take hold — both of which threw a wrench into the works.
A change in plans
After such a long search to find the right doctor, Helen decided to continue her treatment with Tan despite his move. In the spring of 2020, she and Alisha began flying from New Mexico to Chicago every six weeks for treatment.
Finally, in October 2020, Tan was confident that the immunotherapy treatment had shrunk the melanoma as much as they could expect to. He worked closely with surgical oncologist Cristina O’Donoghue, MD, and plastic surgeon Amir Dorafshar, MD, who created a surgical plan that focused on removing the cancer and saving Helen’s leg.
Though previous doctors had recommended removing the entire lower leg to ensure all the cancer was eliminated, O’Donoghue and Dorafshar were confident that they could remove the wound with minimal damage to the rest of the foot due in large part to the success of the immunotherapy treatment.
Tan explains that the use of immunotherapy to shrink melanomas before surgery isn’t presently standard of care; however, preliminary research is yielding very promising results as seen in Helen’s case. The treatment helped shrink the size of the tumor. This made it possible for O’Donoghue to remove the tumor down to the bone, while preserving enough of the foot. This allowed Dorafshar to perform reconstructive surgery on Helen’s foot using muscle extracted from Helen’s thigh, which made it possible for her to bear weight on her heel. The team also worked with orthopedic oncologist Alan Blank, MD, to help stabilize Helen’s foot while it healed.
Today, seven months after her surgery, Helen is cancer-free and, for the most part, her life and mobility have largely returned to normal.
“I walk on my feet all day,” she says. “No wheelchair, no crutches — once in a blue moon I need a cane, but not often. I got the best medical staff to work on me. Dr. Tan saved not only my foot, but my life.”