The Sentinel


Thursday, June 14, 2018

Staying Alive: My IO Journey

by Jacqueline Smith

On Nov. 29, 2006, during the first semester of my graduate school program, I learned the disease I thought I had beat three years prior had, again, reared its ugly head. I was devastated. The lump I had detected in my bikini line almost a year-and-a-half earlier was not the inflamed lymph node that my gynecologist assured me it was, and it was not the result of some minor infection that my primary care provider’s assistant diagnosed. It was a lymph node filled with cancer.

Upon my diagnosis three years earlier, I was advised by my then oncologist to “watch and wait” because the treatments at that time were highly toxic causing debilitating and irreparable long-term damage. However, this time, watch and wait was not an option.

Jacqueline Smith
I returned to my parent’s home in Orlando, Fla. I visited a number of doctors and specialists. On Dec. 21, 2006, I was told it would be a miracle if I survived another five years. Needless to say, I spent the holiday season drowning in self-pity and worry mixed with anger and resentment.

Though none of us know when we will reach the end, most live everyday with the promise and hope for a new day. However, receiving a cancer diagnosis quickly forces one to face their mortality.
Fortunately, with the New Year came new resolve. I was not going to abandon my dreams. I was not going to let this disease consume every aspect of my life. I decided to fight. I began to research every aspect of melanoma: the disease, surgeries, treatments, treatment centers and specialists.

Every doctor whom I contacted recommended I seek treatment at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla. It was there I was given hope. My surgical oncologist stated that while he could not determine my life expectancy, if I did not have the cancerous lymph nodes removed, there was a high possibility that cancer (melanoma) would kill me. He also expressed hope that I would qualify for a clinical trial.

On March 29, 2007, I had a total right groin lymphadenectomy. It was then that Dr. Vernon Sondak alerted me to a newly opened clinical trial. It was then that I learned what immunotherapy was and decided to rest my fate in its hands.

I became one of the first enrollees in the PEG-Intron trial. For the first three months, I had to go to Moffitt daily, for blood draws. I learned to mix and self-administer the Pegylated interferon. I was encouraged to learn this treatment was less harsh than chemotherapy. I was thankful that I would be able to an outpatient during my care.

Most importantly, I no longer thought about my mortality, but rather focused on my treatment and the potential for being cured.

I endured surgery, PEG-Intron therapy and four months of radiation.

Today, 10 years later, I am thankful to say I am cancer free. As my 10-year, cancer-free survival is due, in part, to the success of an immunotherapy clinical trial, I have decided to dedicate my life to working toward establishing immunotherapy as a standard of care for all cancer patients.

I am now the Policy and Advocacy Manager for the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC). At SITC, I am one of many people who work tirelessly to advance the field of immunotherapy in hopes of helping more cancer patients enjoy a better quality of life and transition from long-term cancer free survival to being cured.

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