Joanne Gannon: Life-Saving Immunotherapy for Melanoma

“Fox Chase made my whole experience as easy as something like this could be.”
‐Joanne Gannon

In 2014, just after turning 67, I noticed a spot on my leg. When I went to see a dermatologist near where I live in Forked River, New Jersey, he diagnosed me with melanoma. I was really surprised. I’m dark-skinned—Italian—and melanoma is not common in dark-skinned people. I never used tanning beds or laid out a lot in the sun, but I guess it can happen to anyone.

I got surgery locally and they told me everything was cleared. Two years later, however, the cancer came back. This time, my dermatologist suggested I go see a specialist in Philadelphia.

I picked Fox Chase Cancer Center, because in 2012, when my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer, he was treated at Fox Chase. We had a great experience, so I figured if I had to go anywhere, I was going to go to Fox Chase.

Finding the Right Doctor

When I called for an appointment, the receptionist scheduled me with Dr. Jeffrey Farma, a surgical oncologist. I liked him as soon as I met him. He was easy to talk to and did a good job of both lightening the mood and speaking confidently. He performed another surgery in April 2016, and we felt confident he’d gotten everything. But by June, the cancer was back again.

This time, instead of surgery, Dr. Farma suggested a trial that was underway for a new treatment called immunotherapy, which basically trains your own immune system to fight the cancer. I was scared to death, of course, because the cancer had come back so quickly so many times, but he assured me this was my best option.

My daughter, who was with me at the time, asked, “If this was your mother, what would you do?” He said he’d recommend immunotherapy, so that’s what we did.

Immunotherapy Success

I went to Fox Chase to receive the immunotherapy treatment every three weeks starting in September 2016. The immunotherapy that I received was done intravenously: I sat in a room and received it for 30 minutes at a time, sort of like chemotherapy. The nurses who took care of me were the greatest people. They let my husband sit with me through every treatment and did everything they could to make us comfortable. I also had injections of a new agent directly into the spots in my leg. Within weeks we started to see the tumors shrinking.

Within the first few treatments, nearly all the skin cancer spots on my leg went away. It was incredible. By May 2017, my lower leg was clear, but two nodules on my thigh weren’t going away. They weren’t getting any bigger, but they weren’t going away. So Dr. Farma decided to stop immunotherapy and operate on those two spots. It worked. I’ve been clear of cancer ever since. 

The Gifts of Health and Time

Fox Chase made my whole experience as easy as something like this could be. I can’t say enough good things about everyone I met, from the immunotherapy coordinator, Barbara, all the way up to Dr. Farma.

And the immunotherapy was not only a lifesaver, but it really was pain free. No nausea, no hair loss, nothing. The only side effect I experienced was vitiligo—a few patches of my skin turned white. It’s easy to cover up with makeup, so I can certainly live with that. All I do now is check in with Dr. Farma and with Dr. Anthony Olszanski, a medical oncologist who, with Dr. Farma, directs the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Program. I see them every six months when I go for a CT scan.

The thing I’m most grateful for is the time I’ve had to watch my grandchildren grow. I have five, ranging in age from 7 to 22. The two littlest ones were just babies when I was first diagnosed, and I was afraid I wouldn’t get to be a part of their lives. Now I volunteer in their elementary school library three days a week, all thanks to Fox Chase.

Learn more about treatment for melanoma at Fox Chase Cancer Center.