It all started in 2011 with a stubborn scab-like spot on my back. I ignored it thinking it would go away on its own, but after it started to change colors and even bleed I decided to see a dermatologist. While in the waiting room, I was surrounded by posters of melanoma. It looked just like the mark on my back. Before the doctor had even said a word, I knew I had it.
“Am I going to die? What’s going to happen? What’s next?”
Up to this point in my life, I had never really been to a doctor before. I’d never even broken a bone! I was confused and scared. Even more so when my oncologist told me I had a 50/50 shot. Thankfully, my response was to have faith and put my game face on. I found a doctor who specialized in melanoma, Dr. Gregory Daniels at the University of California San Diego Moores Cancer Center.
Treatment started with surgery and adjuvant interferon, but it was soon discontinued when another lump was found with more melanoma. The cycle of surgery and interferon was repeated – but the reprieve was short lived. In August 2012, follow-up scans revealed 20 ‘relatively small’ tumors all over my liver. This time, surgery and interferon weren’t going to be enough. My doctor and I decided that the best bet was enrolling in a promising trial investigating tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte – or TIL therapy – at the National Institutes of Health with Dr. Steven Rosenberg. Some patients were seeing incredible results, which of course were not guaranteed.
At this point in my life – late 2011 – the stakes seemed higher than ever. My wife just found out she was pregnant with our first child which would be my second. Luckily, the TIL therapy worked. In fact, it was considered a “complete response,” meaning that I wasn’t necessarily cured, but signs of cancer had disappeared. It was a great year for me. My beautiful son was born, I was cancer-free, and things started to look up. Then, three green dots appeared on my right pectoral.
Immediately, I started a second clinical trial examining the experimental combination of nivolumab + ipilimumab. After my first infusion of ipilimumab, I landed in the hospital. The side effects of the immunotherapy were so extreme that I had to drop the ipilimumab altogether. Nivolumab and surgery kept the tumors at bay, but eventually, the spots came back. Tumors were now visible under my skin, and biopsies confirmed, every single one was melanoma.
I started interleukin-2 (IL-2) and over two sessions had 50-60 doses of the medication infused into my bloodstream. Once again, the side effects brought on by activating the immune system reared their ugly head. In all honesty, I wanted to die. It was horrible – easily the worst treatment I’ve ever gone through. I had every side effect that they warn you about. What’s worse, it was all for nothing. The IL-2 didn’t work.
The next two clinical trials I enrolled in were based on vaccines that were injected into my tumors. We saw some results, but the tumors continued to grow. We then tried Keytruda by itself, but after six doses the tumors still continued to grow. At this point, Dr. Daniels had run out of trials to enroll me in, but I was determined not to give up or lose hope.
In late 2017, I tried a new approach and a new clinic three hours north of San Diego, Dr. Omid Hamid at The Angeles Clinic. I’ve been through two clinical trials with Dr. Hamid now and our battle to keep my tumors at bay seems never-ending. But there is a silver lining. My experience motivated me to start my own prevention-focused non-profit organization called Stage FREE Melanoma. I don’t want people to have a story like mine. I want to make a difference. Stage 1 stories are so much easier. If we make early detection easy, fewer people will reach an advanced stage of cancer.
In 2019, we’re launching our mobile dermatology bus to offer free skin screenings and education on melanoma prevention at local parks and beaches in Southern California. We had an amazing “Build the Bus 5K” to raise funds to outfit the bus and get started. It’s going to be a great year for early detection and prevention!
People ask me how I stay positive after nearly a decade of trials and surgeries. I have faith. I know that researchers across the globe are working every day to crack the code and find a treatment that will work. Even if they haven’t beaten my cancer, clinical trials have kept me alive. After nine clinical trials, ten surgeries and more infusions than I can count—I’m still here, eight years after being diagnosed with melanoma. I’ve had ups and downs and have tried practically every FDA-approved therapy for melanoma – but the crux of my story, which all readers need to understand, is that my fight isn’t yet finished. I’m still searching for my silver bullet and the elusive letters N.E.D. (no evidence of disease). In the meantime, I have no intention of letting melanoma get in the way of life. I have faith and I’m going to put it to good use.