The Colgate Scene
January 2003

The Cancer Killer
Andy Kilpatrick '04 is the first to receive radical new cancer treatment

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

During a time when most of his high school peers were thinking about buying their first cars or finding dates to the homecoming dance, Andy Kilpatrick '04 spent much of his time fighting for his life. In and out of doctors' offices, Andy fought against melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer that has taken over his life for the past six years.

The Fayetteville, N.Y. native is the first to receive a new treatment that makes cancer its own worst enemy. After escaping what most thought was imminent death, Kilpatrick, it seems, has been transformed into a tumor-fighting machine.

"Ever since I was 15, I have been living with cancer," Kilpatrick said. "I don't really know what it is like to not have to deal with having cancer."

At 15, Kilpatrick was diagnosed with skin cancer after discovering what started out as a pimple-sized lesion on his left knee. During the next few years, he developed tumors in his pelvis and one the size of a grapefruit in his shoulder.

An English major at Colgate, Kilpatrick dropped out at the start of his sophomore year to have a tumor removed from his brain. That tumor nearly killed him in September 2000, but he said the treatments themselves were the hardest to swallow.

"It's a strange paradox," he said. "When I was home, I felt fine for the most part. The treatments are what made me feel sick, like the worst flu I could ever have all at once. It was hard to get fired up to get a treatment that would supposedly make me better, only to first feel worse."

The new treatment, part of an approach called immunotherapy, came just in time.

After a quarter-century of research, Dr. Steven Rosenberg, chief of the surgery branch at the National Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., has, with the help of his colleagues, discovered a way to make the body's immune system turn cancer against itself. The new approach has shown promising results with patients who have metastatic melanoma.

With the new treatment, doctors inject a patient's immune system with cancer fighting cells that can lead to tumor shrinkage. In a report released last October, Rosenberg describes how he removed part of Kilpatrick's tumor, identified specific cancer-fighting cells called T-lymphocytes, grew and strengthened the cells in the lab and transferred them back into his body to kill the tumors. At Kilpatrick's latest checkup over Columbus Day weekend, two years since Rosenberg started the new treatment, doctors still can't find any evidence of disease in his body.

"In the past, only a fraction of a percent of the cells we injected were able to survive [in the body]," Rosenberg said. Now, 90 percent of the cells can react against the cancer in some patients, he said.

Rosenberg's treatment shrank Kilpatrick's tumors. Remarkably, the 20-year-old is cancer-free. A September checkup marked the first time his doctors sent him back to school without a "but," as he said -- without cautioning him about being conscious of his every action. Researchers are optimistic that the experimental treatment may in the future extend beyond that of melanoma patients. It should be possible, according to researchers at the National Cancer Institute, to raise immune cells that will recognize and attack many types of tumors. Additionally, the same technique could potentially be used to treat some infectious diseases, such as AIDS.

What helped Kilpatrick make the difficult emotional transition to college life, he said, was singing with his best friends in the men's a cappella singing group, the Colgate Thirteen. Following a full year away from college, he came back and auditioned for the group. Kilpatrick said the entire group helped him get excited about returning for the spring 2001 semester. He said the Thirteen helped him meet his roommates this year: Tim Swanson, Kenny Hadden and Andrew Murphy -- all members of the class of 2004 and part of what has become his new graduating class.

Three weeks after returning to Colgate, he felt good enough to postpone one of his treatments for a spring break singing tour of Hawaii and a chance at feeling like a normal college student again.

In September, the ABC television program 20/20 broadcast an eight-minute segment on Kilpatrick's story about his apparent triumph over cancer. Kilpatrick said it was strange -- but not difficult -- to talk about his fight on national television, because he honestly doesn't feel his experience is any different than that of others fighting cancer. The hardest part about watching the 20/20 segment was hearing his mother recall a moment a few minutes before one of his surgeries when he told her, "Mom, it's okay if I don't make it. I have had a wonderful childhood."

"I forgot that I had told her this as a 19-year-old. That was hard to hear her talk about," he said.

"There were times, particularly when he had the brain tumor, when I didn't know what would happen," Mary Kilpatrick said. "I used to have images of Andy and Tom [his father] and me on 20/20 talking about beating this thing, and here we are."

In what many would consider an act of bravery, Kilpatrick traveled to the National Cancer Institute alone for his latest checkup over the Columbus Day holiday weekend last October. In the six years he had been getting treatments there, he had never been to the institute without his parents. Kilpatrick said traveling alone was an important step for him because his doctors require Andy gets a checkup every four months for the next five years.

"It was hard for my parents to sit at home while I was at NIH alone," Kilpatrick said. "On Oct. 29, it was six years since I found out I had melanoma."

The results of his tests were negative and show no new signs of cancer in his body. His next regular checkup is scheduled for February.

Kilpatrick said he's not sure what his plans are after Colgate. He has thought about writing for a magazine as a career or perhaps doing something involving architecture.

"It is strange. Although I get a lot of praise about my courage to fight it, I don't feel that I had a choice. I had to fight it. It was my body," Kilpatrick said. "What's different now is being able to make long-term plans after a couple of years of not being able to do that at all."

This article first appeared in the Eagle Bulletin, a weekly suburban newspaper in Syracuse, N.Y.
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