In December 2016, I learned I had stage IV metastatic melanoma. I had four tumors in my lungs and five lesions in my brain. The initial prognosis was bleak and I wondered if my 31st year of teaching at SUNY Polytechnic would be my last.

I was about to learn that I had won the immunotherapy lottery.

Until recently, treatment for melanoma centered around surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, with generally poor outcomes. But in 2014 treatment switched to immunotherapy, which led to remarkable improvements in outcomes and reduced side effects.

I became a case in point.

Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, works by boosting one’s own immune system’s ability to fight cancer. It has achieved stunning results in clinical trials over the past five years with thousands of patients having been successfully treated for advanced lung and skin cancers, as well as certain kinds of leukemia and lymphoma. Experts at Dana Farber Cancer Center have said that “Of all available modalities for treating cancer, immune therapies have the highest potential for producing long-term remissions.”

In January, my care team at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, with input from doctors at Slocum Dickson in New Hartford, began my treatment, using a combination of two immunotherapies (ipilimumab and nivolumab). At the same time, I received stereotactic non-invasive precise radiosurgery on the lesions in my brain. It was hoped that the radiosurgery would act as an immune stimulus.

There were initial side effects as my revved up immune system went into overdrive. I had a fever and pneumonia-like symptoms that left me exhausted. But the flu-like conditions also indicated the treatment was working: The pathogen had re-set my white blood cells so they could recognize the tumors, which caused the spike in my temperature. Most notably, instead of filling my body with toxic chemicals, the trademark of chemotherapy, I was boosting my body’s own immune system.

The result was a two-day hospital stay at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, followed by two weeks of recovery at home in Clinton. But then the fever broke and I learned that it had worked - after a single infusion, the tumors regressed and no new ones appeared.

I’m back to living my life without side effects, 10 months after beginning treatments - teaching full time, while hiking, golfing, traveling, and cross country skiing again.

I’m now on a second round of immunotherapy to try to ensure that the cancer never returns. This time I’m using pembrolizumab (aka Keytruda) every three weeks. This is the same drug that President Jimmy Carter used to cure his cancer. My system continues to learn how to recognize and fight current and potential future tumors.

This type of therapy has already become a standard of care for late stage melanoma and it will soon become a component of treatment for virtually every type of cancer, some as a stand-alone, others as part of a combination approach along with other treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. I am personally involved in three clinical studies that I hope will move this work forward.

It can’t come soon enough.

Russell L. Kahn, Ph., is an associate professor at SUNY Polytechnic Institute.