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Philip Durst: From Months to Live to Living His Dream

Publication: Austin American-Statesman (Austin)

Almost two years ago, Philip Durst—an attorney at Austin law firm Deats, Durst & Owen— visited his primary care physician for a swollen lymph node and was immediately urged to have it biopsied for cancer detection. The outcome of the biopsy, in August 2015, was shocking and devastating: Philip was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic melanoma and given 4-6 months to live.

“You think of stuff you’re never going to do” said Philip Durst. “You’re told you have this abnormal lymph node, that it turns out to be metastatic, but it never seems real until the doctor says four to six months if nothing works. That’s when you think, ‘Oh my God, if nothing works, there’s a lot I’ve left undone.’”

Fortunately, something did work. Philip’s medical oncologist, Dr. Jeff Yorio of Texas Oncology, suggested an aggressive approach via a promising clinical trial available in Austin for melanoma. As it turns out, for Philip, this clinical trial would prove to be beyond promising.

“He saved my life,” said Durst of Dr. Yorio.

The clinical trial Dr. Yorio suggested combined ipilimumab and nivolumab, two immunotherapy drugs that had not previously been approved for use together. Cancers like Philip’s melanoma have the ability to “hide” from the immune system by using a system of checkpoints that tone down the immune system’s ability to recognize and fight the cancer. The trial theorized that these two drugs would work synergistically to inhibit this checkpoint system and, in effect, take the brakes off the immune system.

Philip experienced overwhelmingly positive results. Aftern nine months, he had no metastatic activity. Philip is grateful to Dr. Yorio and the team at Texas Oncology for the opportunity to participate in the trial.

“My standard joke is, they didn’t have to find a cure, they just need to discover stage 5,” said Durst. “And I feel like that’s what they’ve done.”

This immunotherapy combination treatment has since been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a standard treatment option for advanced melanoma, based upon results of trials like the one that Philip participated in. Texas Oncology is proud to offer clinical trials that help shape and change standard treatment. Currently more than 50 trials are open in Austin for all types of cancer.

Since Texas Oncology’s clinics are located throughout the state, Philip was able to continue treatment with Texas Oncology while working on a courtroom jury trial in Houston. Durst said the positive attitude across the entire team at Texas Oncology sets them apart.

“They’re always very cheerful,” said Durst, of the team at Texas Oncology. “If you just went in and talked to staff, you couldn’t tell that this is an oncologist’s office. Everybody is so continuously upbeat. The staff is phenomenally knowledgeable, but also upbeat and friendly.”

One year later, Philip’s scans are still clear and he calls himself the “luckiest cancer victim alive,” after going from months to live in 2015 to being healthy and present for the birth of his first granddaughter in March of this year. Becoming a grandfather had always been important to Philip, and he’s especially thankful to see that dream become reality.

“I’d do anything for Dr. Yorio,” said Philip. “Thanks to him I’ve been able to last long enough for my daughter to have a baby. Being a grandparent was the number one thing on my list of things I feared I would never do. I was afraid I would never have this opportunity and thought ‘Oh my gosh, I could totally miss this.’ Being able to hold her, spend time with her, to ooh and coo at her, it’s what hanging around is best for. And, of course, embarrassing my children directly.”

While skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, many cases are preventable by limiting exposure to the sun’s harmful rays and avoiding indoor tanning. Basal cell and squamous cell are the most common skin cancer types and are highly curable if caught early. Texas ranks fourth in the nation for newly diagnosed cases of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.

Still, as an “office worker,” Philip’s case is proof that cancer risk from Texas’ plentiful sunshine is not just for those who work outside or spend vast amounts of time outdoors.

The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a change in the surface of the skin. It is important to have any change in a mole or spot on the skin that has changed checked by a dermatologist. 

Read the story from the Austin American-Statesman.

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