Clinical trial helps adventurer overcome rare skin cancer

When Allen Schnitzerling was diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma – a rare but highly aggressive skin cancer – his prognosis was dire. But after putting his faith in his doctors and their “special soup”, as he affectionally calls it, Allen is now planning adventurous holidays with his wife.

Growing up on a cane farm outside of Cairns, Allen dreamt of following in his father’s footsteps and working the land in the foothills of the stunning Wooroonooran National Park’s lush mountains.

But at the insistence of his parents, Allen pursued another of his passions, carpentry. Allen started his own business and then, at the age of 23, left his small hometown for Gladstone, which was experiencing an aluminium boom.

And so began an adventurous life that took Allen across the country – and around the world – and introduced him to his wife, Margaret.

But a life of constructing houses under the hot Australian sun left Allen peppered with sunspots, which he monitored and treated as required.

Small spot diagnosed as a rare, deadly skin cancer

It was in 2020, at the age of 78, that Allen noticed a small, firm, purplish-red mark on his leg that he dismissed as being related to a recent fall.

“I was seeing my GP to have another skin cancer removed when they noticed the mark and suspected it might be more malign than just a reminder of my accident.”

A biopsy soon confirmed that Allen was one of the 300 Australians to be diagnosed each year with a highly aggressive Merkel cell carcinoma. Shortly after, he was rushed into emergency surgery to remove the cancer and lymph nodes in his groin. Allen then underwent a course of radiotherapy.

“I was quite hopeful after that initial treatment – you have to be, despite the scary statistics – but about a year later I received the bad news that the cancer had returned.”

Trial offers hope after cancer returns

Allen was promptly offered a spot in the GoTHAM trial, which is investigating the effectiveness of combining radiotherapy with immunotherapy for treating metastatic Merkel cell carcinoma.  

“I was so grateful to be offered a place on the GoTHAM trial. I’ve always put my trust in professionals, particularly when it comes to anything medical, so I looked them dead in the eye and said, ‘I’m your patient, you go for it’ – and I’m so glad I did.”   

“At my first trial appointment, I told the medical staff that I hope they can keep me alive a bit longer, because I’ve got a few more things I want to do and more adventures to go on with my beautiful wife.”

Cancer free and planning holidays

Now, four months since his first treatment session, Allen received some positive news – a PET scan revealed he was cancer free.

“Hearing that was probably the most emotional I’d gotten throughout this whole thing. I was so overwhelmed and overjoyed that I have a bit more time left. And while they can’t say for certain that the cancer is totally gone, I’m going on some exciting – and long overdue – holidays with Margaret to make the most of life.” 

With the blessing of the GoTHAM team (and some shuffling of appointments) Allen and Margaret recently embarked on a cruise around Papua New Guinea – somewhere they’ve wanted to visit since they were young.

And with a European river cruise on the horizon, Allen is excited for a future made possible thanks to innovative treatments developed through clinical trials.

Learn more about the GoTHAM trial.

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