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Joseph Daly: A Unique Clinical Trial Saved My Life

I’m an active guy. I like to fish, play golf, travel, dance, and go off-roading. When something goes wrong, rather than sitting around feeling bad, I do anything in my power to remedy the situation. In 2013, this philosophy was severely tested when I was diagnosed with a rare cancer.

The Right Place at the Right Time

I initially thought the smallish lump that suddenly appeared in my lower back was a cyst, but after losing 20 pounds during fitness training and consulting a friend who was a masseuse, I got it examined. It turned out to be the size of a cantaloupe. I had only been able to feel a small part of it.

I was diagnosed with chordoma, a rare type of tumor that can grow anywhere along the spine, from the base of the scull to the tailbone. After my diagnosis I jumped into action, seeking opinions at cancer centers all across the Mid-Atlantic. In November 2013, John Abraham, MD, FACS, operated on me. He removed the large tumor, and parts of my sacral spine and tailbone. It was a long and arduous operation that also involved plastic surgery. I’m lucky to have survived.

Joseph Daly with Anthony OlszanskiJoseph Daly with Anthony OlszanskiAfter being treated at another Philadelphia-area center for some time, I came to Fox Chase in search of new treatment options, a change of scenery, and an easier commute from my Brigantine, New Jersey home. At Fox Chase I was treated by Jeffrey Farma, MD, FACS, the chief of general surgery. I really appreciated how attentive he was to my situation and how thoroughly he explained the plan.

Although the large primary tumor had been removed, a series of scans showed that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, lower spine, groin, skull, liver, and ribs. Over a couple of years, we tried different therapies, including three different types of oral chemotherapy. I made progress, but the cancer remained aggressive. It was then that I learned about a new clinical trial that Anthony Olszanski, MD, RPh, was leading at Fox Chase. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

The Power of Support

With a rare form of cancer that kept spreading, I was just looking for a way to extend my life, and this trial gave me a chance to do that. When I started the trial, I didn’t know whether it would be successful, but I was determined to try.

The clinical trial involved a rigorous regimen of chemotherapy administered via direct injections, with between 32 to 64 needles per treatment session once every two weeks. I had five sessions in the spring of 2018 and five more in the fall of 2018.

Throughout the trial, Dan Sabo, a terrific clinical research coordinator, worked alongside Dr. Olszanski, taking care of every injection and tracking my progress for an entire year.

My sisters also gave me crucial support during this time. They’re triplets, and two of them live across the street from each other about an hour away from my house. My two local sisters took care of me while I went through the clinical trial. They cooked, cleaned, and picked up my prescriptions for me. They and the rest of my family – especially my mother – played a big part in my success. I don’t think caregivers get enough credit for their support of loved ones with cancer.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve tried to travel as much as possible. My adventures include a cruise with one of my best friends that took us to Turks and Caicos, St. Thomas, and other Virgin Islands. I also took a trip to Costa Rica with my son and my cousin, where we went zip-lining, saltwater fishing, and dove into a waterfall. My daughter, one of my sisters, and I went to Spain together, seeing Madrid and Barcelona. Dr. Olszanski was flexible with my schedule throughout the treatment, and that allowed me to enjoy another trip. Last year, I went to Iceland with some cousins and friends in the midst of treatment. 

A Clinical Trial Brings Hope

The progress I made on the clinical trial was miraculous. The first round of scans, toward the end of treatment, showed that the cancer in my liver was gone, some tumors were slightly reduced, and the remaining tumors had grown very slightly. Before I received this treatment, my cancer was aggressively spreading and growing. This was the first positive result I received during my entire cancer ordeal.

I am a committed Catholic, and at the time of the first good scan I really felt that God was helping me through, along with the expert physicians at Fox Chase.

Not only was the treatment working, but it took a minimal toll on me. My only side effect was fatigue, and I didn’t lose my hair. The second round of the trial was a little tougher on me, but the results were still encouraging. Plus, I was able to utilize the services of Dr. Molly Collins, the director of medical education in Fox Chase’s Pain and Palliative Care department, to learn about managing the difficulties specific to my cancer and treatments. My remaining four tumors shrunk an average of 20 percent compared to a year earlier, and my liver remains clear. Even the tumors that weren’t directly injected had shrunk.

Although the treatment has lengthened my life, it has made it more of a challenge to keep up the active lifestyle I used to love. Before my diagnosis, golf was my favorite thing to do, and I played some truly memorable rounds, like with the Stanley Cup winning Flyers and in iconic places like the Old Course in Scotland. But I had to give up playing. I also took a long break from dancing. My sister, Kellyanne and I enjoyed dancing a lot of styles – everything from rap to ballroom. But in 2018, in between the two cycles of treatment, I went dancing for the first time in five years. It felt great to be back, and to surprise friends I ran into.

A Look to the Future

Currently, I am catching my breath and working my way back to feeling like myself after the latest round of the experimental treatment. I’m lucky to have help from the pain and palliative care team, because their mission is to help you feel like yourself again. The doctors are looking for the next treatment option, which may be a third cycle of the trial. I am confident that my team at Fox Chase and my strong faith in God will lead me in a good direction.

By taking a chance on clinical trial, I’ve seen things that I never thought I would get to see. Most importantly, I got to become a grandfather, with the birth of my son’s two children. I’ve also seen both of my kids enter the professional work force, which makes me proud. My daughter graduated from Rutgers and now works in the art world. My son became a physician’s assistant at a children’s hospital in Virginia.

I still try to stay active in whatever way I can. I still fish and travel, and I’ve been walking on the beach near my house. My preferred time of day is early in the morning, so I can watch the sunrise. It’s a time to reflect and also to enjoy the present and look forward to the future.

Ultimately, of course, I’m hoping to find a cure, and I hope Dr. Olszanski’s study can help many more people now and in the future. While I search, I am grateful that Fox Chase has given me the ability to look out over the ocean and think about the future. 

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