Melanoma nearly killed him. Then, he became an immunotherapy ‘super-responder’ and walked his daughter down the aisle.

Dec. 8, 2023
Bill Myers, left, was on the verge of dying from melanoma in 2016 when he became an immunotherapy "super-responder." He's doing well now, and in August, walked his daughter, Gina, down the aisle at her wedding in Estes Park. Photos courtesy of Hillary Shedd Photography.
Bill Myers, left, was on the verge of dying from melanoma in 2016 when he became an immunotherapy “super-responder.” He’s doing well now, and in August, walked his daughter, Gina, down the aisle at her wedding in Estes Park. Photo courtesy of Hillary Shedd Photography.

The bride-to-be had a special gift for her dad on the eve of her wedding.

After receiving immunotherapy for melanoma, Bill Myers recovered and was able to be at his daughter's summer wedding. Gina Hochhalter calls her dad "Pops" and got him special suspenders for the occasion. Photo courtesy of Hillary Shedd Photography.
After receiving immunotherapy for melanoma, Bill Myers recovered and was able to be at his daughter’s summer wedding. Gina Hochhalter calls her dad “Pops” and got him special suspenders for the occasion. Photo courtesy of Hillary Shedd Photography.

The family had gathered at an Estes Park bowling alley for a low-key rehearsal dinner before an intimate wedding the next day at a mountain lodge.

Gina Hochhalter always has called her dad “Pops.” The two are very close and love making each other laugh with hokey gifts or endless dad jokes that Bill Myers, 62, repeats long past their expiration date.

This time, instead of a gag gift, Gina went for sentimental: a pair of custom suspenders that said, “The Bride’s Pops.”

“I gave them to him and wrote him a card, and he got all teary eyed,” Gina said.

“Pops had a lump in his throat,” Bill said, recalling the poignant moment.

Gina hadn’t expected to cry until her dad walked her down the aisle the next day, but she, too, dissolved into tears.

“I realized how lucky I was that I got the opportunity to be able to give him this gift,” Gina said.

Back in 2014, Bill noticed a very large mole on his back. His primary care doctor at the time removed the mole but failed to have the cells biopsied. Bill didn’t know anything about skin cancer back then, but when the aggressive mole grew back just six months later, he saw his doctor again. This time, Bill asked for a biopsy.

Days later, he received devastating news. Not only did he have skin cancer. He had the worst kind: melanoma.

His deadly cancer already had spread to lymph nodes, and it later spread to Bill’s lungs, making it tough for him to breathe at his high-altitude home in Estes Park. By the time the cancer had settled into Bill’s lungs in 2016, Bill was receiving care in Loveland at UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies. Doctors determined that his melanoma now was stage 4, the most advanced type. Since Bill’s medical team initially thought there was little they could do for him and presumed he had just weeks to live, they encouraged him to meet with the hospice experts and contemplate end-of-life care.

Then the on-call cancer specialist visited Bill and offered some hopeful news. New medications had recently been approved for stage 4 melanoma. These immunotherapy treatments might be able to fire up Bill’s own immune system to mount an attack on the cancer.

If they worked, they just might save Bill’s life.

Gina and Nathan's dogs did not get to come to the wedding. But they joined in the celebrations in advance. On the left is Max, and on the right is Ace. Photo courtesy of Gina Hochhalter.
Gina and Nathan’s dogs did not get to come to the wedding. But they joined in the celebrations in advance. On the left is Max, and on the right is Ace. Photo courtesy of Gina Hochhalter.

Immunotherapy for melanoma advances cancer care and survival rates

UCHealth oncologist Dr. Steven Schuster was impressed with Bill from the moment he met him back in June of 2016.

Bill was struggling to breathe since the aggressive cancer cells were flooding his lungs. And he had just received a devastating prognosis.

Still, he was determined to be optimistic and wanted to relish life’s joys for whatever period of time he had left.

“He always had a positive attitude. I think that served him really well,” Schuster said. “He hoped for the best and wanted to be cured.”

When Bill first was diagnosed with melanoma in 2014, immunotherapy treatments were not widely available. The only easily available treatment option then was a brutal combination of radiation and chemotherapy.

“It’s really intense, and understandably, he decided not to do that,” Schuster said. “When the cancer came back, it was really aggressive. The team that was consulting with him thought there was nothing they could do and that his cancer was going to be terminal in a matter of weeks.

“When I came to see Bill, he was mentally preparing for that,” said Schuster, who, along with seeing patients at various UCHealth northern Colorado hospitals, is the medical director of oncology research for northern Colorado. His home base is the Cancer Center on the Harmony Campus in Fort Collins.

“We had a really interesting conversation. He was thinking that I wasn’t going to have anything to offer, but in 2016, so much had started to change. We had immune therapies and targeted therapies that were much less toxic,” he said. “First, we had to do an analysis of his cancer to determine if he was a candidate.”

Bill was gung-ho to try anything.

Schuster started seeing Bill every day at the hospital (where Bill had to remain due to his severely compromised lungs). Schuster determined that two immunotherapy treatments would be the best match. They were nivolumab and ipilimumab, a combination that doctors sometimes refer to as “nivo + ipi.” (The brand names for these immunotherapy medications are Opdivo and Yervoy, respectively.)

“They were newly approved and could have bad side effects, but still were much less toxic than the previous options,” Schuster said.

Bill was eager to get started as soon as possible, and the results were astonishing.

Bill Myers, left, was thrilled to be able to walk Gina down the aisle. Gina's brother led her part of the way, then handed her off to her dad. Photo courtesy of Hillary Shedd Photography.
Bill Myers, left, was thrilled to be able to walk Gina down the aisle. Gina’s brother led her part of the way, then handed her off to her dad. Photo courtesy of Hillary Shedd Photography.

Doctor’s advice: ‘Bill, you should get your truck’

Almost immediately, Bill suspected that his body was responding.

“At night, in particular, I could feel the medications working. I would get night sweats and a dull pain. I could feel it in my lower back and in my chest. I visualized my T-cells going after the cancer. They were at war,” Bill said. “I just knew the treatments were working.”

His hunch proved 100% correct.

“He responded really fast,” said Schuster.

Within just two weeks, Bill started to show signs of improvement, and by the fall of 2016, scans showed no evidence of cancer.

Schuster dubbed Bill a “super-responder.”

Doctors and researchers have found that some patients respond very quickly to immune therapies; others can respond a little more slowly and still can do well.

“The speed of response is a luxury, not a necessity,” Schuster said.

Even so, the degree and force with which Bill’s body fought the cancer boded well for his long-term prognosis.

Back in 2010, before new medications came on the scene, fewer than 10% of people with stage 4 melanoma would go into full remission, Schuster said.

By the time Bill received immunotherapy medications, new research showed that at least half of patients who went into complete remission within a year of receiving immune therapies were likely to remain cancer free.

In the months after Bill started receiving the nivo/ipi cocktail, he shared with his doctor that he wanted to buy a new pickup truck but feared he wouldn’t live long enough to enjoy it.

Schuster, himself, drives a pickup and knew Bill wanted a similar one.

“He wanted a fancy F-150 but was thinking he wasn’t going to live long enough to use it. I said, ‘Bill, you should get your truck.’”

Bill bought the truck and has since sold that truck and bought another new one. It’s a testament to his remarkable response to treatments and his unexpected triumph over his cancer.

Schuster continues to see Bill for regular follow-up checkups and thinks his patient has beaten melanoma for good.

“I would be shocked if it came back,” Schuster said.

After overcoming cancer and other challenges, ‘Every day is like Christmas’

Bill feels incredibly lucky that he responded so well.

“Somebody upstairs likes me,” said Bill. “I’ve always been an average guy. The one thing I do really well is respond to Opdivo. If you’re going to pick one thing to excel at, I guess it’s pretty good to be a cancer super-survivor.”

Bill also relishes being a dad and granddad. Gina’s younger brother, Nick, has three young children: a 3-year-old named Wesley and twins named Brook and Cale, who were born in February.

Bill retired about a year ago and loves taking Wesley to preschool and spending special days with him that he has dubbed “Wednesdays with Wesley.”

In addition to prioritizing family, Bill loves following college football and cooking healthy, hearty food like gumbo, salmon on his smoker and complex Asian stir fry recipes.

Bill Myers was dying of melanoma, then he became an immunotherapy "super-responder." He was overjoyed to be with his daughter, Gina, on her wedding day. Photo courtesy of Hillary Shedd Photography.
After immunotherapy helped him survive melanoma, Bill Myers was overjoyed to celebrate his daughter’s wedding with her. Said Myers: “Every day is like Christmas.” Photo courtesy of Hillary Shedd Photography.

He also loves taking road trips, especially those that lead to fun landmarks like a UFO museum.

“This past spring, I did Arizona and New Mexico,” Bill said.

Along with learning about UFO sightings, he enjoyed a visit to Carlsbad Caverns and couldn’t resist snapping a selfie in Winslow, Arizona, an homage to the famous song lyric in “Take it Easy” by the Eagles, one of Bill’s favorite bands.

He, of course, sent the photo to his kids.

Gina relishes his “dad humor.”

“She’s polite about it. I get a lot of mileage over the same jokes. I’ll say them over and over,” Bill said.

Recovering from melanoma gave him the perspective to fully appreciate life.

“Every day is like Christmas,” he said.

Following his cancer scare, Bill moved to Parker. While his cancer is in full remission, he has some residual damage to his lungs, and it’s much easier to breathe at lower elevations. Plus, his kids, their spouses and the grandkids live close by.

Along with melanoma, Bill has been through other challenges that make him appreciate his good fortune now. A tough divorce many years ago and sadness over being separated from his kids prompted Bill to become addicted to alcohol. He’s proud that he’s been in recovery for more than 20 years.

“I’ve been sober since 2001. And some of the skills I learned to stay sober also helped me with my cancer journey. We all hit bumps in the road. It really helps to take things one day at a time. Don’t look at the future. Love each moment.

“I really had to focus on ‘The Serenity Prayer:’ controlling what you could and letting go of things you can’t control. It’s hard to do in the midst of the battle when you’re staring death in the face, and they’re telling you that you have stage 4 cancer.”

Bill credits his mom with passing down a glass-half-full approach to life.

“She had a great sense of humor. She enjoyed simple pleasures,” he said.

He does the same.

“I wake up in the morning. I’m happy because ‘A,’ I’m alive, and ‘B,’ I’m sober.”

Being able to celebrate Gina’s wedding proved to be a wonderful cherry on top of Bill’s big post-cancer hot fudge sundae.

A very special date for their wedding

Gina and her then fiancé, Nathan Hochhalter, picked a special day for their wedding: Aug. 8.

It was a Tuesday — an unusual day to get married. But it was his mom’s birthday. Honoring his mom and celebrating her dad’s cancer survival put love of key family members at the heart of the couple’s wedding.

Back as a young teen, Nathan endured a devastating tragedy. He was a student at Columbine High School in April of 1999 when two fellow students killed 13 people and badly wounded Nathan’s older sister, Anne Marie. Nathan’s family then suffered another tragedy when his mom, Carla, died by suicide just six months later.

When Gina and Nathan met online in 2019, they compared notes on their first date about growing up in Littleton. She attended Dakota Ridge and was a couple of years behind Nathan. She knew plenty of people who had been affected by Columbine and, for years, had attended annual celebrations to honor those who were injured and died at the school.

She’s also a therapist with a huge heart.

In Gina, Nathan had found the perfect person who could understand the trauma he had overcome.

“He’s the most resilient person I’ve ever met,” said Gina, 37.

Immunotherapy helped melanoma patient survived. Dave Myers walks his daughter to her groom, Nathan Hochhalter. Photo courtesy of Hillary Shedd Photography.
Nathan Hochhalter, left, is a Columbine survivor. He and his wife, Gina Hochhalter, picked their wedding day to honor Nathan’s mom. Photo courtesy of Hillary Shedd Photography.

In Nathan, Gina found a kind person whom her dad and brother adored. He fit right into their family.

At the couple’s wedding, they created remembrance tables. One was dedicated to Nathan’s mom and featured photos of him as a child with her. Another table was dedicated to grandparents who had passed and couldn’t be there in person.

Celebrating their wedding on his mom’s birthday felt just right.

Gina and Nathan Hochhalter displayed special tributes to his mom at their wedding. They included photos of Nathan with his mom when he was a child. Photo courtesy of Hillary Shedd Photography.
Gina and Nathan Hochhalter displayed special tributes to his mom at their wedding. They included photos of Nathan with his mom when he was a child. Photo courtesy of Hillary Shedd Photography.

Following Columbine, there was a lot of false information about Carla Hochhalter, Nathan said.

“She was portrayed as struggling with depression only because of Columbine,” he said.

In fact, his mom had been struggling with bipolar disorder for years. She had been hospitalized when he was in middle school but had not fully recovered.

“Columbine didn’t do my family any favors, but the reason she killed herself was that she was discharged from an inpatient facility before she was ready.”

Nathan was only in 10th grade when his mom died. Thankfully, a group of amazing people was there to support him.

“I had good friends to lean on, and my extended family was always present,” said Nathan, 39.

For those who have experienced trauma, the reverberations will come in waves of good and bad days, Nathan said.

By creating special, new memories at their wedding, Nathan and Gina turned sorrowful thoughts into joy and beauty.

“Tragedy is going to be with you for life,” Nathan said. “But now, Aug. 8 is a day for happy thoughts.”

A giggle as he accidentally stepped on his daughter’s wedding dress

As the wedding approached, Bill was nervous that he wouldn’t be able to breathe up in Estes Park. He hadn’t been back since he had lived there and dealt with lung damage.

But spending time at about 8,000 feet above sea level just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park proved to be just fine. Bill brought a supplementary oxygen tank but didn’t end up needing it.

“I was doubly happy. I could breathe, and my daughter was getting married. It doesn’t get any better than that,” Bill said.

He was a little worried about navigating a long stone walkway from a gazebo to the outdoor stage and trellis at a beautiful venue called Della Terra, where Gina and Nathan would say their I-dos.

So, Gina’s brother stepped in to help. Nick walked his sister part of the way, then Bill took over.

With pine trees surrounding them, wild turkeys and deer meandering nearby and McGregor Mountain towering overhead, Bill walked his daughter to a small stage with a cedar trellis, decorated with baby’s breath.

He accidentally stepped on Gina’s dress once.

“I giggled, said, ‘I’m sorry,’ and Gina said, ‘Don’t worry, Dad.’ I’ve got such big feet. It’s hard to keep track of that much real estate.”

He immediately felt tickled and thought to himself, “I’m alive to be able to step on her dress.”

“Everything was amazing. Everybody looked great. I had flashbacks to when Gina was a little girl. She was always so sweet and wanted to help others. She’s in the right profession,” said Bill.

‘A really good moment’

Gina is incredibly proud of “Pops.” In addition to excelling as a dad and granddad, the retired quality engineer volunteers for the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program, driving patients to and from appointments, and helps care for puppies for Freedom Service Dogs, a nonprofit that provides service dogs for veterans, others coping with PTSD and children with autism.

She takes after him both when it comes to her sense of humor and caring deeply about others and her community.

“I’m a social worker. I have this activist heart,” said Gina.

She sees patients at UCHealth Family Medicine in Littleton. She loves supporting people of all ages. She has helped children as young as 3 and adults who are in their 90s.

“I came from a crisis background, so I worked in the emergency department for a long time,” Gina said.

Now she can get to know patients better over time.

“The great part about what I do is the relationship I have with the patient’s primary care doctor,” she said.

She can help patients get through challenging times and can do tune-up visits when necessary.

“I might not see someone for six months, then if they have to go through a tough experience, like the death of their spouse, they can schedule some time with me rather than having to go find another therapist,” Gina said.

“All of the providers at our clinic are phenomenal, and they’re all so supportive of behavioral health,” she said.

Both she and Nathan are active in the community and have testified about gun safety at the Colorado legislature.

During time off, the couple enjoys spending time with their two dogs at a property they purchased in Walsenburg in southern Colorado.

“We plan to build at some point. For now, we love to camp with the dogs,” Gina said.

Ace is a pit-bull boxer mix, and Max is a terrier mix. They also enjoy reminiscing about their very special wedding day, including the rehearsal dinner when both Gina and her dad dissolved into tears.

“I can’t remember the last time he cried. Both of us realized that we didn’t know if he would be able to be at my wedding,” Gina said as she got a lump in her throat again. “It was really special. It was a really good moment.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.