Perseverance Prevails Against Rare Melanoma

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By Dawn Dorsey, Staff Writer

JConnelly.jpgIn 2000, Jason Connelly had a melanoma on his back surgically removed at M. D. Anderson. It hadn't spread, so he closed that chapter of his life and moved on.

Six years later, as his dream of getting an M.B.A. at Rice University was beginning to come true, Connelly's stomach began to swell. He tried to shrug it off, but when he couldn't button a new suit he had bought the week before, his wife insisted he go to the emergency room.

"Cancer wasn't exactly a distant memory, but it certainly wasn't at the top of my mind at that point," Connelly says.

Tests reveal nothing

After three days of tests, the hospital could find nothing amiss. By this time, Connelly was feeling pretty bad, but the standard tests -- CT scans, ultrasounds, blood tests -- showed nothing. The hospital pronounced Connelly healthy and prepared to release him.

"I had been swollen for a couple of days before I went to the hospital, but I felt OK," Connelly says. "But after I had been in the hospital for 12 hours or so it really started escalating, and I felt terrible. They pulled six liters of liquid out of my belly, but it just kept filling back up."

Connelly knew something was wrong, so on a hunch he called M. D. Anderson before he was released. They told him to go home and get some rest and show up the next day.

Rare cancer is found

At M. D. Anderson, all the tests were repeated. Then Connelly's surgeon suggested a laparoscopy to find out what was causing the swelling.

"He found the peritoneum (lining of the abdominal cavity) was covered in melanoma. The cancer was like a paste, too thin to show up in imaging tests," Connelly says. "That was shocking, but by this time I was really sick. The body uses the peritoneum to store electrolytes, so I was dehydrated and my body had no minerals to work on."

Rigorous treatment begins

The team of physicians at the Ben Love/El Paso Corporation Melanoma and Skin Center decided to treat Connelly's cancer with therapies that worked to stimulate the immune system. These treatments are intensive and available at only a handful of cancer centers.

"I got really sick," he says. "Traditionally, they give this all at once, but my body couldn't handle that. So I would go into the hospital for a week of chemotherapy, then go home for two weeks and then go back for the immunotherapy."

But after five months of intense treatment, the cancer had not responded.

"The cancer didn't grow -- but it didn't shrink, either," Connelly says.

Innovative treatment was tough

Next, physicians decided to use high-dose interleukin-2, another option available at only a handful of cancer centers.

"This puts tremendous strain on your body, and your cardiovascular system has to be top-notch," Connelly says. "Each time they gave it to me, I went into ICU for a week, then spent three additional days in the hospital."

During this time, Connelly's life was on hold. He was unable to go to school.

"It's like I was on a merry-go-round, but suddenly I had to get off," he says. "The school was really helpful, but I was just too sick to do my work."

Success comes at last

Finally, when the arduous regimen was complete, a biopsy showed the paste-like material was still there, but all the cancer cells were dead.

Connelly returned to life with a vengeance, finishing his degree with a grade-point average close to 4.0 and getting what he calls his "dream job." He and his wife have since divorced, and he has joint custody of his 5-year-old son, whom he calls his best friend.

Of course, Connelly keeps an eye on his skin and visits his physicians every four months. But the rest of the time he's having a blast: He loves to eat good food, drink good wine and travel. He just returned from his second cruise.

"Ever since my cancer, it's all been good luck," he says. "It really gives you a different outlook on life. I found out I have a lot more time to do things that matter to me than I thought I did."

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