Jim Allison: Breakthrough

Jim Allison, image from PBS.org

If you read one book, watch one movie or show that I talk about on this blog: WATCH THIS DOCUMENTARY. You can stream on a PBS app or you can just click here.


This past Monday (4/27) PBS aired a documentary on their Independent Lens program. Jim Allison: Breakthrough serves as a part biography and part history of cancer treatment. Although the documentary is an hour and half, it feels like it goes by in 20 minutes.

Jim Allison is the reason I’m alive and well today. His work led to the development of the drugs used for all immunotherapy treatments. He spent half his life chasing his own theory on effective cancer treatment and then finally found an indisputable medicine using the body’s own immune system. But just because you have a cure for cancer doesn’t mean it gets made and distributed. Allison has dedicated the rest of his life (not just professional career– his life) to making sure that this treatment got developed and distributed. And it was quite a war.

One of the things this documentary shows to you is that even with incredible breakthroughs and solutions, it still takes the mechanism of the business world to implement those solutions and put them on the streets. Many times businesses don’t have the courage to do it. It’s much safer not to spend the money, not to take the action, not to incur the possible liability. We live in a very real vetocracy. It’s a system that nearly kept one cure for cancer from getting to cancer patients! Jim Allison, for very personal reasons, refused to let his cure die on the vine. And he wasn’t alone– there had to more champions within business to make this happen (specifically, Dr. Rachel Humphrey).

The documentary also features someone who was diagnosed with melanoma in her 20s in the early 2000s. This was before immunotherapy had been accepted as a possible treatment for melanoma. Despite conventional cancer treatments, the tumors spread to her brain, leaving her with metastatic melanoma– my same diagnosis. Through various twists and turns, she becomes one of the first patients to undergo immunotherpy. Her tumors disappeared. Completely.

There is a chance moment when her doctor gets to introduce her to Jim Allison, the inventor of the treatment that cured her. In recounting that meeting, she says these words:

I just couldn’t talk.

How in the world are you suppose to adequately thank somebody, standing across from you, that you are 100% positive that without them you wouldn’t be here?

There is no “thank-you” for that.

Sharon Belvin

Those words touched me. They have a lot to do with what I write about in this blog. This sense of “There is no “thank-you” for that.” I’ve called it grace. Maybe it’s something that can’t be contained in words at all– something ineffable. But it is real. I’m living proof.


Again, WATCH THIS DOCUMENTARY! Look for Jim Allison: Breakthrough on PBS’s Independent Lens series, or click here. You’re in for quite a ride. Jim Allison does not project the scientist-curing-cancer vibe you might imagine!

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