Fort Wayne Medical Oncology and Hematology patient Joel Saunders is among the first in the nation to undergo treatment with a new drug aimed at prolonging the lives of people with stage 4 melanoma cancer.
Like so many people who discover they have cancer, Joel Saunders didn’t see it coming. Nor did he have a reason to be looking.
Joel, 46, rarely even missed a day of work, no mean feat considering he was holding down two jobs so that his wife, Kimberly, could be a stay-at-home mom for their daughter Jadyn, now 10 years old.
“Joel has always been so big, strong, and muscular—always so healthy,” Kimberly says. “He’d usually go a year or two between sick days. That’s why we were so shocked by all of this.”
It began as a pea-sized growth near the right-side junction of Joel’s neck and shoulder. He first noticed it in February 2009. The first doctor to examine the growth said it might be a swollen gland and wrote a prescription. Over the next five months, however, the abnormality grew—and grew.
In August 2009, the growth was removed. Two days later, after a biopsy was completed, Joel was told that the growth was melanoma. Joel was told his cancer was in stage 2.
Two weeks later, Joel underwent surgery to remove a host of lymph nodes to see if his cancer had metastasized, or advanced to other parts of his body. “My cancer, a very aggressive cancer—is a rare instance in which the melanoma formed inside my body,” Joel explains. “There was never a ‘source’ on my skin.”
However, Joel had spent seven years working in various capacities for a swimming pool company in Florida, where he and Kimberly met some 18 years ago. Overexposure to sunlight is the leading cause of skin cancer.
“He was always outside when he worked for that pool company,” Kimberly says. “We think that constant expose to the sun contributed to his cancer.”
Joel was then referred to Fort Wayne Medical Oncology and Hematology (FWMOH), where his primary physician has been Dr. Matthew Carr. Joel first underwent treatments with interferon, a drug that boosts the immune system and fights tumors.
Still, the cancer was relentless. By February 2010, it was determined that Joel had three brain tumors, and he underwent full-brain radiation therapy in an attempt to destroy or shrink the tumors. It was also determined that Joel’s cancer had advanced to stage 4, terminal.
Soon after began what would become regular visits to the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where surgeons removed Joel’s brain tumors. The first surgery was performed on Good Friday in 2010. Joel also underwent gamma-knife radiation treatments at Mayo.
“Dr. Carr was fantastic during my time at the Mayor Clinic,” Joel recalls. “He worked very closely with the doctors there, exchanging information about my condition and progress. We really appreciated that.”
Joel healed well after those surgeries, and with the addition of oral chemotherapy to his treatment at FWMOH, his condition seemed to be static. However, a fourth brain tumor was later diagnosed, and cancer was also discovered in as many as 25 places in Joel’s body.
Something new and exciting
This spring, Yervoy, a new drug, gained approval from the Federal Drug Administration. Developed by Bristol-Myers-Squibb, Yervoy prolonged the lives of people with late-stage melanoma during clinical trials.
“Yervoy is the first treatment developed specifically to treat patients with stage 4 melanoma,” Carr says. “Patients who’ve received this treatment have been twice as likely to survive during both the first and second year after treatment. That’s very exciting news.
“The body often lags in recognizing and attacking cancer cells,” Carr continues. “Yervoy, a man-made antibody, releases the emergency brake on that part of the immune system that lags behind. Then, the immune system gears up and finds and destroys melanoma cancer cells.”
Given the opportunity to try Yervoy, Joel didn’t hesitate. “We’re very thankful for the possibilities this drug presents,” Joel says. “I never gave trying it a second thought. It’s a real blessing.”
Joel is receiving a total of four doses of Yervoy at FWMOH over the course of 12 weeks. He underwent his second treatment—taken intravenously—on May 19.
“Joel may be the first person in Indiana to receive Yervoy, and one of just a few so far in the whole country,” Kimberly says. “We know his cancer can’t be cured, but it’s treatable, and Yervoy could add months to his life. And for people whose cancer is discovered early, Yervoy could add years to their lives. This is very exciting.”
While it can take up to six months for the full benefits of Yervoy to manifest, Joel has already seen positive results. After just one treatment, two protrusions on his neck all but disappeared.
As with many treatments to fight cancer, there is a potential for adverse side effects. So far, Joel has experienced a moderate version of those effects, including stomach pain and body rashes.
The best medicine
Throughout his ordeal, Joel and Kimberly have relied on family, friends, and their abiding love for each other to maintain a positive attitude. “We have a terrific support system, and Joel and I are very close,” Kimberly says. “We’re still as much in love as when we got married.
“So many things have happened over the last two years,” Kimberly continues. “We’ve been blessed so much, over and over. We continue to focus on the positive, not the negative. We think that’s a good example to set for our daughter, so when she faces difficulties in life, she’ll remember how brave her father has been.”
Faith plays a big role in fostering that positive attitude. Joel earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies at Cincinnati Christian University, and, following in his father’s footsteps, he once served as a minister.
Kimberly says they also have great faith in the staff at FWMOH. “They’re such good people—we feel that we’ve actually made friends at Fort Wayne Oncology. Everyone—from the receptionist when we first walked in the door—to the nurses, to the doctors, especially Dr. Carr, of course—has treated us with nothing but respect and kindness. They treat us as though Joel is the only patient they have.”
For now, Joel and Kimberly are just waiting to see what tomorrow may bring. “All we can do is have faith in God and trust in our doctors,” Joel says. “We’re just taking everything one day at a time.”