Eric Stimac’s life is a work in progress, interrupted by a cancer that wasn’t satisfied the first time and came back for more.

A tall, rangy 34-year-old who loves nothing better than a run in his neighborhood park with his Stafford terrier, Ziggy, Stimac worked in 2012 as a child custody investigator and guardianship reviewer for elderly and disabled patients.

That’s the year he was diagnosed with melanoma on his neck and back.

Surgeons removed the cancer and biopsied his lymph nodes. The results: Clean margins and no metastasis. He went on with life.

In 2014, he found another lump on his neck. This time it turned out to be metastatic melanoma. It had found its way into his brain in the form of three tumors.

‘The cancer would have progressed’

Marianne Melnik, MD, Stimac’s surgical oncologist at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center, immediately ordered testing for the BRAF oncogene, a human gene that makes a protein called B-Raf. When mutations cause the gene to become overactive, they can cause normal cells to become cancerous.

“We know the drugs that work best in these people (who test positive),” Dr. Melnik said. “Now we’ve found that if you use two particular gene inhibitors, you can get longer remissions than you can with one alone.”

In another instance of timing being everything, the week before he tested positive for the BRAF oncogene, the FDA approved a new one-two treatment punch. Dr. Melnik could prescribe a combination of the two medications.

After doctors removed a large tumor from the back of Stimac’s head, however, a seizure forced emergency surgery to remove a bleeding tumor from the front of his head. A rakish scar above one eyebrow testifies to what he calls a rough day.

Following surgery, Dr. Melnik began the drug combo that could cross the blood-brain barrier to the brain. Traditional chemo was not an option. The molecules in traditional chemo are too large to get through the barrier.

“Having the BRAF gene was good because it meant I could have targeted therapy,” Stimac said. Without it, “the cancer would have progressed in my brain and taken my life.”

Targeting specific types of cancer, right down to their genetic core, is what the Spectrum Health Center for Personalized Cancer Care is all about. A specialty medical team works cooperatively, unveiling the inner workings of individual cancer cells and targeting treatments to eradicate the cancer before the cancer overtakes the patient.

The team includes experts from the Spectrum Health Cancer Center, Cancer Research Consortium of West Michigan, Cancer and Hematology Centers of Western Michigan, Michigan State University, and the Van Andel Institute.

‘No evidence of disease’

Part of Stimac’s treatment regimen was SRS radiation, “a lot of small beams shot through the head, which intersect at the tumor and cause very little damage to surrounding tissue,” as he described it.

Oral chemo came next and was suspended only during full-brain radiation to get any remaining cancer. He is back on it and will be indefinitely.

Once Stimac’s insurance approved the personalized approach to his treatment, and he started the medications, the tumors began shrinking almost immediately.

Stimac describes a golf-ball size lump that was gone in two or three days.

As of February, his scans “looked perfectly fine, no evidence of disease,” Dr. Melnik said. “We all wonder if it will return, but there will be other targeted agents if it does.”

She and Stimac have been through a lot of cancer territory together, and they’ll remain partners in his care as he moves forward.

“Dr. Melnik is really open to getting a second opinion,” he said. “She lays out the information and has enough confidence in me that I’ll make good decisions. I feel like more of a person than a patient with Dr. Melnik.”

Stimac said he’s learned to make crucial decisions based on what is effective and minimally invasive, leaving other, more drastic options “open, but in my back pocket.”

Eager to get on with life again, he’s searching the job market in education and social work, and pursuing life passions that include time outdoors and gyros, not necessarily in that order.

To request a consultation, second opinion or refer a patient, call 1.855.SHCANCER (855.742.2623).