Devastated by a diagnosis of advanced melanoma, a young mother finds hope in medical research

Natalie Richardson

“Even if something only works temporarily, that option could buy time until another treatment — and potentially a cure — comes along.” - Natalie Richardson


Eight years ago, Natalie Richardson was given a 26% chance of surviving the next five years. Today, she credits medical research for her ongoing survival

When Natalie Richardson was diagnosed with advanced melanoma at age 37, she didn’t fully grasp the gravity of her prognosis — until her medical oncologist broke the news that Richardson, a single mom whose twin daughters were then 11, likely wouldn’t see them graduate from high school.

“She explained that I had a 26 per cent chance of surviving five years if I did nothing, or 28 per cent if I did the treatment that was available at the time,” Richardson recalls of that day in 2014. “When I realized there were no other options, I panicked. We all panicked — my kids, my family. Everyone was just stunned.”

Roughly a month before that meeting, Richardson had been at her family doctor’s office with one of her daughters for a sore throat. “After her appointment, she said, ‘Mom, maybe you should show the doctor your mole,’” Richardson says. Over the previous six months, a beauty-mark-like mole on her hip, there since birth, had grown larger, changing shape and colour.

Busy with work and parenting, she’d put off having it checked. Richardson’s doctor sent her to have the mole removed and biopsied. After testing confirmed the presence of melanoma, she underwent a sentinel node biopsy, a surgical procedure to determine whether cancer has spread into the lymphatic system. In Natalie’s case, it had. CT scans further revealed a tumour on Richardson’s thyroid. Thankfully, this turned out to be a highly curable form of thyroid cancer.

But that was the only bit of good news. Richardson was stunned by the statistics her medical oncologist cited during that consultation in 2014 following the extensive operation to remove her lymph nodes. Desperate, Richardson asked the specialist, “Now what do we do?”

While this was indeed a dark moment, Richardson would soon learn ongoing research and drug development into serious cancers has led to more options than patients before her would have had. 

In consultation with her oncologist, Richardson opted to enroll in a drug trial testing a new treatment that was already well along in the development process. “People have been working on these solutions for a long time,” she says, “and I trust this process.”

The process of developing medications is complex and can take 12 to 15 years. It starts with research to better understand a disease itself: for instance, the sequence of biological steps in the body that contribute to the development of a serious disease. Each of these steps represents a possible point of interruption. It’s a bit like the board game Mousetrap - block or reposition one piece, and you may be able to change the course of the disease, or even stop it in its tracks. From there, scientists develop molecules that zero in on one of these ‘targets of interest.’

Medical researchers then painstakingly shepherd potential new treatments through a sequence of carefully designed studies to ensure they are safe and effective before Canadian physicians can prescribe them to patients. These important clinical trials take many years to complete before a drug reaches a patient, as the medicine must pass rigorous testing and it must demonstrate a significant benefit while not causing intolerable side effects. 

Researchers around the world, driven by the goal of helping patients, continue to work day in and day out to discover new ways to treat serious diseases.

Within a few days, Richardson’s phone rang.  She had been selected to receive the experimental therapy in the clinical trial. “The kids were playing in the basement, and I ran downstairs, and I was just screaming, ‘I got it!’ And they started jumping up and down,” Richardson says. “That was my first glimmer of hope.”

The next 20 months were a challenging period for her, her kids and her family but by the midway point no evidence of cancer remained.     

Richardson’s sense of hope gradually grew. 

Eight years after her diagnosis, despite a high risk of recurrence, Richardson says periodic testing has continued to show no sign of disease for either cancer. She recognizes that her outcomes have been the result of a tremendous team effort including researchers collaborating on developing new therapies, health professionals carrying out clinical trials, and patients participating in them.

“Research is always progressing,” she says. “Even if something only works temporarily, that option could buy time until another treatment — and potentially a cure — comes along.”      

“We are inspired by patients like Natalie, whose lives can be transformed by innovative medicines discovered by researchers looking for new ways to treat diseases. We want to be ready when Canadian patients need our medicines now, and in the future,” says Troy André, General Manager of Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) Canada. BMS continues to accelerate breakthrough science for patients with serious diseases and, as new treatment options become available, work collaboratively with the government to help Canadian patients have access to them.

Richardson sees everyone who plays a role in cancer research as, “a big circle I am so grateful to be a part of because it gave me a chance of survival. I didn’t think I was going to see 40.”  

All treatment options have benefits and risks that vary by individual. Patients should consult their health-care provider to determine the most appropriate option.