T.J.'s Diagnosis Story
In August 2012, I walked into the local ER with what I thought was a spiking fever, and left 16 days later with a Stage IV melanoma diagnosis. There was cancer in both lungs, my liver, and my spleen, and an 8cm tumor on my small bowel had just been surgically removed. I had lost 30 lbs., and the treating oncologist told my wife he would be surprised if I were here in two years.
I also had a 4 week old little boy, to go with his 2 year old sister. Standard of care chemotherapy offered me little chance to watch either of them grow up. We sought out treatments that would give me the best chance at obtaining a durable response. A remaining lifespan of 24 months was not something any of us would accept without looking into every possible treatment option.
The following 4+ years were filled with physical, mental, and emotional highs and lows. I began one clinical trial at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL, where I became the first person ever to try a process called TIL (Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocytes) in between doses of another immunotherapy, recently approved for melanoma as Yervoy. I had surgery to remove a lung tumor, and the TIL team found the T cells in my body that worked best against my specific melanoma. They replicated them to some 55-60 billion, and re-infused them into my body. High-dose interleukin-2 followed. A bad-luck diverticulitis gave me a colostomy for over two years during/after that treatment.
When the first trial showed disease progression (that's oncology-speak for "it's getting worse"), we came home to Fort Lauderdale for a second clinical trial. Leaving such a well-respected team at Moffitt was a difficult choice, but they did not have the trial I felt would give me that next-best-chance at the goal of a long-term response. Holy Cross Hospital, a fraction of Moffitt's size, did have an opening - and I enrolled in an anti-PD-1 trial for what eventually was approved as Keytruda. Over four years later, I am winding down my participation in the KEYNOTE-002 trial, and likely to discontinue the medicine (although remain on trial) in the summer of 2017.
As my health has improved, I have been fortunate enough to share my story on the Patient #1 blog on www.Philly.com, on www.NovartisOncology.com, and now on www.SkinCancer.net. Having been given an opportunity to both write and speak about my clinical trial experience and overall fight against this disease, I hope to bring better awareness of prevention, detection, and treatment options to those who one day will embark on their own cancer journey.
Melanoma remains a killer, to nearly 10,000 people every year. The outlook is shifting slightly though, with 11 new therapies or combinations approved in the last decade. Targeted and immunotherapies have become the most advanced treatment options for many cancers, and melanoma is at the forefront of both of those research efforts.
Cancer. Every other man, and every third woman in the United States will get some form of cancer in their lifetimes. The chances are greatest it will be skin cancer. There is a lot to know about skin cancer, and www.SkinCancer.net is where you will find information and real-life experiences from current and former skin cancer patients.
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