"You have cancer."
My name is Sharon Belvin. I am 25 years old, married, I have a master’s degree in elementary education. Like many other 25 year olds, I enjoy spending time with my friends and family. I tolerate my husband’s obsessive love of our college football team, the West Virginia Mountaineers, and I play host to those infamous game day parties. But truly, this is where the similarities end. My husband and I, as well as those who are close to us, were changed forever on the day that we learned that I had cancer.
It was the morning of May 28, 2004, just two weeks after my graduation and two weeks before my wedding. I was having severe breathing problems at the time, so bad in fact that I couldn’t even walk and talk at the same time. I went to countless doctors and no one could tell me what was wrong. Finally, a CAT scan and surgical biopsy were done.
When the doctor uttered those horrific words "you have cancer," I couldn’t imagine worse news. But then he told me that I had a very aggressive type of melanoma and that it had already spread throughout my body. I was only 22 years old, and it seemed my life was over. After the shock and disbelief faded, reality set in, and my husband and I went on auto pilot.
The chemo stopped working.
My local oncologist started me on a cocktail of chemotherapies that gave me the worst nausea and heartburn I’d ever experienced, neuropathy that crippled me with pain, and scars that I still have today. These toxic side-effects got worse over time. By my fifth month, I was not able to keep any food down, could barely walk, and I was having severe anxiety attacks. I guess my body was trying to tell me something, because it was at this time that my chemo stopped working.
My local oncologist was out of ideas, so I was then transferred to the care of Dr. Jedd Wolchok at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. During our first meeting, he gave me some more bad news: the cancer had spread to my brain and I was going to need surgery before I could continue receiving the treatment that I so desperately needed. The only good news was that I qualified for a new type of surgery, where high-intensity radiation took the place of a knife.
I had begun to lose hope.
Fortunately, it was successful enough to resume treatments. A week later, I began a new regimen of therapy that, yet again, ravaged my body. I grew violently nauseous and my skin began to peel off. My cancer continued to spread and my situation became even more desperate. Fluid had begun to fill my chest cavity, enough to nearly collapse my left lung and move my heart two inches to the right. I required emergency surgery, and more than twelve liters of fluid were removed from my chest cavity. I was in pain for weeks afterwards. And, I had begun to lose hope. I started to believe that I wasn’t going to survive much longer.
Then Dr. Wolchok made a suggestion that, it turns out, would save my life. He told me about a clinical trial of a biological therapy called anti-CTLA-4.
One last chance.
He told me about the risks of the study: there was no guarantee I was going to get the real thing or placebo, and if I did get it, there was no guarantee it’d work. But none of the conventional treatments for my cancer had worked at all. My choices were to do nothing and die, or try anti-CTLA-4 and maybe survive a little bit longer. Truly, it was the easiest decision I ever had to make.
Compared to chemo, the trial was a piece of cake. I received only one, 90-minute infusion every third week, as well as two injections in each leg. It wasn’t a daily event nor did it require a hospital stay. There were some mild side-effects, but they were nothing at all compared to the chemo. I remember saying to my husband, "Why could they have not started me on this, rather than making me suffer through chemo?"
After four rounds of treatment, I met with Dr. Wolchok to discuss my progress. I had gotten so used to receiving bad news, that when he told me the treatments were working, I didn’t know how to react. Dr. Wolchok told me the main tumor in my left lung had shrunk more than 60 percent, and that all the other tumors had also shown a dramatic decrease in size. The radiologist that read my scans that day told Dr. Wolchok, "Whatever you’re giving that girl, keep it up. I haven’t seen a sudden decrease in tumor size like this in a long time." From that day on, Dr. Wolchok named himself, "Dr. Good News."
The tumors kept shrinking.
In the months that followed, the tumors kept shrinking. For the first time since I was diagnosed with cancer, I was feeling optimistic. Then, in September last year, after two and a half years of pain, suffering, and fear of dying, I got the best news of all.
My husband, a friend, and I were all sitting together in Dr. Wolchok’s office when he pulled his chair close to mine and told me that I was in remission. All three of our jaws hit the floor. My husband and I didn’t say a word, but my friend started hitting me and crying. Dr. Wolchok asked if I would mind meeting Dr. Allison, the man who created anti-CTLA-4. I said of course, and while Dr. Wolchok called Dr. Allison, I called my family. My father, who works here in the city, ran fifteen blocks to get to the doctor’s office. I think he made it there in five minutes, just in time to meet Dr. Allison.
While waiting for the man who discovered the therapy that saved my life, I remember thinking to myself, "I wonder if I have gone into remission enough to make him happy. Maybe he would want to wait a few months to see if it lasted." When he walked in, though, all of these thoughts faded and all I wanted to do was to give him a hug.
Immunotherapies for cancer work.
In the course of my treatment, I learned that the drug that Dr. Allison created and Dr. Wolchok administered is an antibody therapy that took the brakes off my immune system, allowing it to kill my cancer cells. The fact that I am up here tonight is living proof that the immunotherapies for cancer work.
Now that I have my health back, my husband and I are looking forward to starting a family and finally getting the chance to live our lives together. I’ve also started counseling cancer patients at the Jersey Shore University Medical Center. Here I get to tell people everyday not to lose hope. Because just when I thought that it was over for me, I found something that saved my life.
CRI helped make this discovery possible.
Before I finish my story tonight, I need to thank a few people. Dr. Allison, without your dedication to cancer immunology, I would not be standing here today. Dr. Wolchok, I don’t even know where to begin. You walked me through ever step of my battle with cancer. But most of all, you gave me hope when I didn’t have any. I’m also grateful to the Cancer Research Institute, for its support of Dr. Allison’s laboratory and Dr. Wolchok’s clinical work. CRI’s commitment to immunology helped make this discovery possible.
Finally, I thank my husband. Without you, I would have no life to get back to. You married me even though I had cancer. You never missed a doctor’s appointment, and stayed up many a night with me when I was so scared that I could not sleep. All I can say is that, I love you. I love you because of what we went through rather than in spite of it. It is because of all of you and with the grace of God that I am here today. I thank you all for being apart of my recovery.
And I thank all of you, reading my story. In supporting the Cancer Research Institute you are giving me and people like me their lives back. I will be forever grateful to all of you for helping me to conquer cancer.