“While I was there, I mentioned that I’d had a lump on my throat for a few weeks,” he relates. “She said that if it was still there in another week, I should get back home and have it checked out.”
He did — and the news wasn’t good.
“I had a scan and a needle biopsy, and they showed that I had stage 4 melanoma — a tumor was wrapped around my parotid gland,” Hollander says. The parotid glands are a pair of large salivary glands located in front of each ear.
Within just a few days, he underwent the first of two surgeries. A team of eight head-and-neck surgical specialists removed the tumor — a complex procedure that required careful separation and preservation of the nerves in that part of the body. Several weeks later, he had a second operation called a lymph node dissection to assess how much the cancer had spread.
“They cut me from my ear to my Adam’s apple and took out 23 lymph nodes,” Hollander says.
“Fortunately, the lymph nodes were clear. But stage 4 melanoma is nasty. My prognosis wasn’t good, and treatment options were limited.”
Henry Tsai, MD, Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Hematology and Medical Oncology, treated Hollander. Dr. Tsai was the local principal investigator for the National Cancer Institute’s E1609 clinical trial testing the efficacy of a new immunotherapy drug called Yervoy® (ipilimumab) against the then-standard therapy of using interferon in treating advanced melanoma.
“Not too long ago, most stage 4 melanoma patients died within a year of diagnosis,” says Dr. Tsai. “But around the time of Mr. Hollander’s diagnosis, Yervoy was being tested in clinical trials.”
Hollander was randomly assigned to the arm of the trial in which patients received interferon, the standard of care at the time. “Interferon made me feel like I had the flu all the time,” he recalls. The study protocol permitted Hollander to withdraw from the interferon arm of the trial and Dr. Tsai went on to treat him with Yervoy. Although Hollander withdrew from interferon treatment, he remained on the clinical trial. Dr. Tsai and his clinical trial team monitored Hollander closely for side effects and disease progression.
“After four cycles of the new immunotherapy drug, his tumor shrank and was gone,” Dr. Tsai says. “He tolerated the drug well and now, five years later, everything remains clear. This drug absolutely saved his life.”
Hollander’s case is both a success story and a cautionary tale.
He admits that his early lifestyle was the likely culprit in his diagnosis. An avid surfer, he’d spent a great deal of time in the sun, including in the tropics. His blond hair and blue eyes increased his risk for skin cancer even more.
“I remember surfing in El Salvador when I was 21,” he recalls. “It was the best surf of my life, and at the end of that four-hour session my forehead and cheeks were one solid blister. I had to stay out of the water for ten days while it healed.”
Hollander went on to co-found Becker Surf, a well-known Hermosa Beach surf shop specializing in handmade boards — which he built — as well as gear, apparel, footwear and accessories. And he continued to surf.
He had his first melanomas removed in his early fifties — one on his temple and an early-stage lesion on his back.
“With these first run-ins, I changed my lifestyle,” he says, referring to staying out of the sun as much as possible, and wearing protective clothing and sunscreen. “But there apparently were ‘crumbs’ of the melanoma in my system that grew into the stage 4 disease.”
As part of the clinical trial, Hollander continues to be closely monitored — care that likely has saved his life in another way. In fact, one of the benefits of being in a clinical trial is the requirement for close monitoring of participating patients, which can result in early identification of side effects and disease recurrence. In addition, the research team that conducts clinical trials includes top doctors and scientists from around the United States, who work together with local oncologists to execute the trials at Eisenhower.
“Last year, I went in for my semi-annual follow-up CT scan for the melanoma clinical trial, and they found a spot on my lung that turned out to be lung cancer,” he says, noting that it probably developed from his 13 years of crafting surfboards in a relatively unregulated factory. “The surgeon told me that this type of lung cancer has no symptoms until it is often too late. But because of the regular scans I got as part of the trial, they were able to catch mine early enough so that all I needed for a cure was surgery.
“I’ve had doctors tell me I’m the luckiest patient they’ve ever seen,” Hollander continues. “I have to agree. If I’d been born two years earlier, this clinical trial wouldn’t have been available to me. I am what they call a success story — and with advanced melanoma, that’s rare.
“I can live anywhere I want, but I’m never going far from Eisenhower,” he adds. “They’re an amazing group.”