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New treatment does wonders for local man

Jim Brusso’s wife Anita, and the rest of his friends and family, call him Superman for the way he has fought against melanoma since it first reared its ugly head in 2008 and came on strong in multiple places throughout his body in October 2013.

But even Superman needs a little help sometimes — and Brusso got that from Dr. Ed McClay, an oncologist who has studied melanoma since 1984 and works several times a week at an office in Encinitas.

This past April, just days before Brusso was set to have major brain surgery — the plan was to take what they could from a tumor on his pituitary gland that was causing him to lose his eyesight because of its proximity to his optic nerves — a visit to Dr. McClay had miraculous results.

“He said he had this new stuff back in the closet, and they’ve had real good results with this … and I’d like to try it,” Brusso remembers. “I said ‘Get it out!’ ”

That new stuff was a combination of two medications, Zelboraf and Cotellic. Brusso took a half dose of the sample, in the parking lot of the doctor’s office in Escondido, started a full dose the next day, and just about a week later, his vision was totally back.

Even more good news came at his last brain MRI, when Brusso learned that the pituitary gland tumor — one of a couple Brusso has but the one that has given him by far the most trouble — has reduced in size by more than 50 percent.

For the past month or so, Jim has seen a great improvement in his quality of life, feeling well enough to spend more time with the large group of friends and family that visit the Brussos at their Oceanside home on a regular basis. It’s the best present Anita and Jim could ask for as they recently celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary.

“It was a miracle,” Anita Brusso says.

And a great bit of timing. According to Dr. McClay — who after 26 years working in universities, including two stints at UC San Diego, where he started the melanoma research program, now heads the melanoma program at cCARE, a private practice oncology group — treatment for melanoma has improved greatly in just the past few years.

“Since the 1970s and 1980s through 2011, there have only been two medicines for treating melanoma patients. Since 2011, we have had eight medicines approved,” McClay explained.

There is an example unfortunately close to the Brussos, as Jim’s brother had a similar diagnosis a few years earlier, though it wasn’t caught until much further along, and the treatment available at the time was unable to prevent his death.

What researchers have learned now is that about 50 percent of melanoma patients have a mutation in a gene called B-RAF. This allowed them to develop drugs like Zelboraf and Cotellic, which work together to target that specific problem. Not only do those drugs target melanoma in patients with the gene mutation, but they have been successful in breaking the blood-brain barrier, a safety filtering mechanism of the body that has historically hindered the ability of some medicine to be effective in the brain.

And talk about good timing? When Brusso went to see McClay just before his surgery, Cotellic had only been approved for two months.

“It’s one thing to see a response, and another thing to have a guy that’s ready to have a tumor taken out of his brain and to see that kind of response to some pills that he’s taking, it’s remarkable,” McClay said. “I’ve been doing melanoma research for many, many years, and it’s just amazing to see this kind of stuff happen for people now.”

Brusso and his wife both come from the Riverside/San Bernardino area, with Jim working on a ranch growing up. Jim went into the Air Force reserves in 1971, then came to San Diego to attend United States International University, which at that time had its campus where Point Loma Nazarene is now.

The Brussos got married in 1972 and moved back up to Riverside where Jim became a teacher. With their two sons — Jared, now 35, and Jordan, 30 — the Brussos moved back to the San Diego area in the early 1980s, living in North County. Both retired now, Jim Brusso worked at Valley Middle School in Carlsbad for 21 years, while Anita was a successful sales rep for a title company.

Those lives well-lived have created the Brussos’ large support system that they both say has been vital to Jim’s battle with the disease. Anita says it’s the little things, a text saying “Love you” or “I’m thinking of you” that make the biggest difference.

As has the help of Jim’s team of doctors, including McClay, who has been back in San Diego since 1999 and now lives in Bonsall with his wife of over 30 years, Mary-Eileen. They have two children.

McClay works with patients at cCARE’s offices in Escondido, Vista and Encinitas. The Encinitas office is at 477 N. El Camino Real.


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