On September 15, Addison Brush joined four others in receiving the Courage Award from the Melanoma Research Foundation at the Wings of Hope Gala in Chicago. She was joined by her family and her physician, Jason Luke, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.
Her difficult path to that stage began four years ago—winter break her senior year of college at Marquette—in a hot tub in California, where her sister spotted a suspicious mole on her back. “My sister commented that it was really ugly,” Addison says with a laugh. They went to see a dermatologist, but they weren’t worried: there was no family history of melanoma, and her parents were vigilant about sunscreen. “It was my first mole ever removed,” she says.
But analysis showed that the ugly mole was stage 2 melanoma. Just a few days later, she had an eight-inch stretch of her back surgically removed, along with six lymph nodes. The lymph nodes showed no signs of cancer: she was in the clear. “I just missed the first week of that final semester of school, and I was on painkillers for the second week and then I was good to go,” she says. “I graduated on time and everything.”
Addison graduated magna cum laude that May, passed the CPA exam later that summer, and moved to Chicago to start at PricewaterhouseCoopers in the fall. She visited her dermatologist quarterly for checkups, but nothing new appeared.
Two and a half years later, while talking to her roommate, she felt a sudden twitch in her tongue. “It was going to the roof of my mouth and then back down, uncontrollably,” she says. “Then it just passed and I was fine.”
A few days later it happened again, this time on a date. “We were making dinner at his place and he was outside turning on the grill,” when her tongue started fluttering again. “I was like, ‘This is going to be so embarrassing if he walks in,’” she laughs. She went to his bathroom to wait it out, where she had a seizure. She woke up in an ambulance.
The next four days “seriously felt like I was on House,” she says, as doctors, neurologists, and neurosurgeons crowded around trying to understand her condition. Scans showed a brain bleed but nothing else. With no clear picture of what was causing the problem, they discharged her with instructions to return in a few weeks to be reexamined.
She came back with her roommate to get the results: they’d found a tumor the size of a walnut in her frontal lobe—which meant she would have to be awake for the surgery, so they could talk with her during it and ensure they wouldn’t damage any parts of the brain involved in speech. “So that was a lot to take in,” she says, “and then we went straight to get ice cream.”
Her parents flew in from California for the surgery; as they were landing, the hospital called to say there was an issue with a machine necessary for the surgery, and it would be postponed indefinitely. A family friend connected them with Dr. Luke at the University of Chicago Medicine, who saw her right away and immediately referred her to the surgery team.
Although Addison’s surgery went perfectly, it wasn’t the end. A pre-surgical MRI revealed another tumor, too small for surgery, in another part of her brain. Analysis of the first tumor revealed that it was the melanoma, spread from her back nearly three years before. “Then I went through the PET scans, which showed an area of concern on my back,” she says. “Sure enough, it was another mini little melanoma tumor.”
At this point, Dr. Luke laid out the situation, and recommended immunotherapy. “He’s the one who said it is stage 4,” Addison’s mother Nancy says. “He said it calmly and then went right into the plan, right into the possibilities.”
When they sought a second opinion from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, the physician they met with told them to turn right around: immunotherapy was Addison’s best option and there was no reason to leave Chicago as Dr. Luke was a known international expert in melanoma and immunotherapy treatment. “He said, ‘You’re in great hands,’” her father Jim recalls. “He said, ‘Do it.’”
The success of immunotherapy treatments for a variety of cancers has led to a wave of FDA approvals in recent years, and Addison was one of the first patients to receive a combination of ipilimumab and nivolumab in a normal clinical setting. The two drugs are checkpoint inhibitors: they interfere with the protein interactions cancer uses to escape attack from the immune system.
Unlike the two surgeries—specific events with quick results—immunotherapy would take a few months. But in the midst of the uncertainty, Addison’s family and friends gathered around her. One printed up a few thousand rubber bracelets with ADDSTRONG printed on them, and friends started sending her pictures of the bracelets all around the world: on the Great Barrier Reef; on the wrist of Golden State Warriors player Klay Thompson. And Nathan, the date who called 911 when he came back in from the grill and found her unconscious, stood by her, bringing coffee and games for her various hospital stays.
After two rounds of treatment, she did a full battery of tests and scans. Thomas Gajewski, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, who was filling in for Dr. Luke while he was on paternity leave, shared the results: complete remission. There was no sign of cancer anywhere.
Seven months later, Addison is cheerful, energetic, and eager to help those who find themselves in her situation. She participates in charity races—one of which led to an enduring cycling habit—and, of course, the Melanoma Research Foundation gala. Joining her on the stage was Dr. Gajewski, who received the Humanitarian Award that same night. And her family, always by her side, made a $50,000 gift in her honor to support Dr. Luke’s research in cancer immunotherapy.
“There’s a lot of different kinds of medicine and a lot of different kinds of procedures,” says Jim, “but just to have the experience we had—we would love to have that happen to as many people as possible.”