Immunotherapy minimizes cancer recurrence risk for Merkel cell carcinoma patient

Early in 2021, Burnell got a cold sore on his lip that just wouldn’t heal. Burnell is a hardworking man—nothing slows him down, especially not a little cold sore. His days are spent outside working on his ranch and taking care of the cows, so he didn’t focus much on the sore. But it wasn’t long before he acknowledged this cold sore was different and told his wife, Elena, he needed to see a doctor.

They made an appointment with a doctor in a neighboring community in New Mexico. After that appointment, they decided to see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist in Farmington. It was there that Burnell learned he had stage IIIB Merkel cell carcinoma. Understanding the aggressive nature of this rare cancer, his ENT reached out to Justin Moser, MD, a hematologist and medical oncologist at the HonorHealth Research Institute Melanoma Clinic.

Historically, patients with stage IIIB Merkel cell carcinoma are treated with surgery followed by radiation. Unfortunately, many of these patients still develop recurrent disease. Appreciating the high risk for recurrence of Burnell’s cancer, Dr. Moser and the HonorHealth Research Institute Melanoma Clinic decided to treat him with one dose of immunotherapy prior to surgery using a cancer medication called nivolumab, based on results of a previously reported study. When he underwent surgery four weeks later, there was no cancer left on the resected tissue—Burnell had a complete response to treatment.

munotherapy minimizes cancer recurrence risk for Merkel cell carcinoma patient

“Given his cancer was completely gone at the time of surgery, we likely reduced the chance of his cancer returning from more than 50% to around 10%,” said Dr. Moser.

Burnell is now three months post-treatment and experiencing no symptoms of cancer. He’s doing all the things that keep him young—working on the ranch, spending time with family and making pueblo ladders to display his wife’s quilts. He is grateful for the thoughtfulness of the team members at HonorHealth Research Institute and for their frequent phone calls to check on him.

“They come to work to get it done,” Burnell said of his care team. “They don’t waste time. They listen and they are direct—they tell you the way it is.”

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For more information on HonorHealth Research Institute Melanoma Clinic, please call 480-323-1364 or email

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