My name is T.J. Sharpe. I'm a father, husband, brother, friend and fighter– of Stage 4 Melanoma.
You will be reading about a battle with cancer, but that is just the backdrop for this story - one that really focuses on life, health, family, and the challenges we all face every day to win our little battles. Ultimately the war on "Father Time" can never be won, but this is one man's tale on how I am fighting to keep that battle going for years.
I'm a South Jersey native and a 1993 graduate of Bishop Eustace. I parlayed an education and some success on the football field to gain admission to Carnegie Mellon, a Top 25 university in Pittsburgh – one that probably wouldn't accept me now, and likely would not have in 1993 either – without a little help from the athletic department. Regardless, a door was opened to another fantastic school, and four more years of football at the Division III level, where our biggest perks were the occasional travel meal money and some free grey t-shirts that I still wear today. At both schools, I was able to get a great education, play the sport I loved, and establish lasting relationships with more good people than I can easily count.
After college, I became an IT consultant, first based out of Hoboken, NJ, then Haverford, Pa., before relocating in 2004 to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where I currently reside. There, I met a native Floridian (they do exist!) lawyer, married Jen in April of 2008, and now have two wonderful kids – 2-year-old Josie and 5-month-old Tommy. I love living in the Sunshine State, have met many great friends, and even have raised a little girl who is a Phillies and Flyers fan (Jen and I drafted teams for our children's allegiance; the Dolphins went first, followed by the two Philly teams, then the Heat. The top 3 picks have vastly underachieved). However, my roots are still in the Delaware Valley, and I will always call Philadelphia, South Jersey, and The Shore "home."
My very enjoyable life – not perfect, but certainly very blessed and lucky – sort of came to a screeching halt in early August 2012. With Jen and the kids visiting her brother/sister-in-law and their new baby, I spent a weekend trying to recover from a spiking fever that reached 103.8 degrees. After admitting Advil, Gatorade and Won-Ton soup were not getting the job done, I reluctantly checked into Broward General Hospital and was fairly quickly informed that multiple legions, likely cancerous, were causing my illness. Tests over the next several days confirmed the presence of tumors in my lungs, spleen, liver, and the granddaddy of tumors – an 8-cm one pressing against my small bowel. Stage 4 melanoma was the diagnosis – considering that "Stage 5" involves a priest and a funeral director – this was as bad as it can get. Over a 16 day stay, I lost 30 pounds, had my small bowel tumor removed, and started preparing for a long battle with cancer. Testing also confirmed this was a recurrence of a malignant melanoma that I had removed twelve years prior in 2000, despite all sunscreen, floppy hat, and long-sleeve precautions taken.
After being released from the hospital, we set out to find the best course of treatment (one you will read about in the coming posts) ultimately settling on Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL and a clinical trial which combines a new FDA-approved drug (Yervoy) with an existing experimental treatment involving my own t-cells. This treatment has never been tried in this order before – basically shoving the t-cell part in between the Yervoy treatments. So, as far as the doctors can tell, I'll be the first person on the planet to give this a shot – hence, "Patient #1."
Numbers on partial/complete survival rates vary by many factors, but it seems consistent there is about a 15 percent long-term survival rate of patients with Stage 4 melanoma – and the average lifespan, depending on treatment, can vary between 6-24 months.
These numbers painted a pretty grim picture for Jen and I as we digested them, but they are not absolutes, and all the different factors that could push odds in my favor leaned my way: a relatively healthy man in his mid-to-late-30's (OK, OK... 37 is late 30's... indulge me here) with access to the best medical care possible; a supporting network of family and friends; an employer who has given me as much time as I need to get better; a prior history of beating cancer already; and most of all, a positive outlook.
I am not letting cancer define me – no more than I would let my inherited receding hairline, semi-athletic build, or lack of fashion – be more than a fringe description of who I am. I am not just T.J. Sharpe: the tall bald guy in the Jimmy Buffett t-shirt and Phillies hat –or– T.J. Sharpe: the cancer survivor. And I am certainly not going to be T.J. Sharpe: the statistic. Patient #1 has a lot of living left to do. This is my story...
Editor's note: T.J. Sharpe will be blogging for Philly.com/health throughout his fight with Stage 4 melanoma. Check back for his next post, which further details his cancer diagnosis and delves into the clinical trial that makes him "Patient #1."