Published on January 6, 2021
T.J. Sharpe’s Story
Follow along as two-time cancer survivor T.J. Sharpe shares the story of his journey with melanoma. This includes his reaction to his second diagnosis in 2012, the type of treatment he pursued and his experience in clinical trials. T.J. also shares helpful words of advice for fellow melanoma patients.
My Journey with Melanoma
Cancer shows itself to us in a variety of ways. For some, it’s a lump, or a spot on the skin. Others learn of it through a blood test.
For me, cancer started in 2012 as a fever — one I ended up visiting the emergency room for — in large part because my son had been born less than a month prior and I didn’t want to put him in danger. That trip, however, ended up lasting over two weeks when my doctors discovered I had stage IV melanoma.
This was a more lethal version of the same disease I beat over a decade ago when I was diagnosed with stage 1b melanoma. With tumors spreading throughout my body and into multiple organs, the hospital oncologist estimated that I had two years to live.
With a pair of young children at home, I knew there was no way I was going to take the diagnosis as a predetermined destiny; I would do everything possible to fight this disease. After getting four different second opinions, my wife and I decided that standard melanoma care wasn’t going to cut it. I embraced clinical trials as my best shot at a full recovery.
The first trial, at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, combined immunotherapy with a process known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, commonly referred to as TIL. I was the first person to undergo this immunotherapy and TIL combination treatment in the specific sequence. Unfortunately, this trial didn’t end up working for me, but I didn’t give up.
Fortunately, we found another trial located at Holy Cross Hospital, only a few miles away from our home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It came without the large-scale team and recognition of Moffitt, but it had the drug that I thought could be the answer. This trial was for a type of immunotherapy known as anti-PD-1 “checkpoint inhibitors,” for a drug called pembrolizumab that would eventually be approved as Keytruda. And this time, the trial worked in my favor.
In less than three months, my tumors shrank to roughly half the size they were when my second trial began. Today, years later, I’m happy to report I had a complete response, and I currently have no signs of cancer in my body. My treatment journey was long, and at times difficult and entirely frustrating. But there are important lessons I can pull out of it.
Words of Advice for Fellow Patients
I believe the most important lesson for me was knowing what all my options were. I did my research while getting those four opinions, and in the end, I made the best decision for my health not once, but twice, based on that research. I embraced clinical trials as a treatment option, and likely would not be alive today if I had stuck to the original chemotherapy suggestion.
I remember shortly after receiving my diagnosis, while I was in a hospital eight years ago, I told myself one day I would make a difference in the lives of others facing cancer. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing, and what my trials and treatments have graced me with the opportunity to do. I’ve found meaning in being able to share my story with others. I believe this can give others hope, offer a sense of perspective, and help them process the massive amounts of information we receive on our diseases. Every person, every family and every situation is unique, but the challenges we collectively face are so very similar, and guiding others on their journey is simply paying forward the navigational assistance I received as I began mine.
As I have transitioned from “patient” to “survivor,” I know that my ability to help others is a valuable and needed resource in the cancer world. My work has evolved into being a patient voice in clinical research, and my family knows that part of Daddy’s life is being that voice to and for others. Those 2-year-old and 1-month-old kids have grown over the last eight years to grade-schoolers who understand the challenges we faced as a family, the extreme good fortune we were blessed with, and the sacrifices we each make so I can help each and every person who will hear the words, “You have cancer.”
By T.J. Sharpe
Transcript | Melanoma Patient Story: My Diagnosis and Treatment Journey
TJ Sharpe: To me, cancer was a disease that happened as you got older. I thought that grandparents got cancer. I didn't think that someone who was 25 would get skin cancer, or who was 37 would be given a stage 4 diagnosis and given two years to live.
How Were You Diagnosed with Melanoma?
When I was 25 years old, I found a small spot on my clavicle and was diagnosed with stage 1B melanoma. It was removed, and I thought I was free and clear of skin cancer. Unfortunately, 12 years later, that same melanoma came back inside of me. This time it was called stage 4, which means it was spread to the internal organs in my body, in my lungs, in my liver, in my spleen, and on my small bowel.
When I was first diagnosed, I had gone to the ER of the local hospital, the same hospital where just four weeks ago, we had had our baby boy, and the ER doctor came in and said, "From the looks of your scan reports and your history of cancer, I'm afraid you have a recurrence of your melanoma."
And my thought was, you must have someone else's chart. I'm just here for a fever. It was a shock. It was hard to understand what that meant. It took a long time to go through a full week to really understand how bad my disease was, what the possible treatment options were, and what I needed to do to make sure I get to see that little four-week-old boy grow up.
What Advice Can You Offer a Newly Diagnosed Patient?
When I was diagnosed, I wished that I knew that there were a number of different types of treatments available and that my doctor may have only been able to recommend one or several, because that's what they were familiar with. My doctor did not let me know about things like clinical trials and was also unaware of trials and treatments and combinations that were being tried at other locations. Had I known that I would have known to ask more precise questions, and questions that would have had him ask me what my preference for treatment was.
For me, my family has been my source of inspiration. It wasn't too hard to look and see a two-year-old daughter and a four-week-old son and say I want to be around to watch them grow up, to see them go to kindergarten and high school and college and be successful in their lives, and I want to be a part of that. That was the inspiration behind everything I did, whether it was to find a second opinion, where to start my clinical trial, or even just after a surgery to get out of that bed and walk around the nurses' stand because I wanted to get myself better and I wanted to go see my kids and spend Halloween with them.
I have changed my career to become an advocate and a patient voice in the clinical research in the pharmaceutical world. I get to speak for every patient that's out there in helping design trials and get better treatments to patients as quickly as we possibly can. It's a very humbling experience to be able to speak for every person out there that's going to hear the words, you have cancer.