Brad Shelly’s life has been dotted with minor and major miracles—including surviving kidney cancer.
In the fall of 1989, Brad Shelly embarked on a trip to Charleston, South Carolina for a service project rebuilding homes ravaged by Hurricane Hugo. This trip set off a chain of events that would change his life forever.
“I believe there were a few minor and major miracles over that time,” said Shelly, “starting with that trip.”
He recently recounted this story in a thank you note to his surgeon, celebrating the 30th anniversary of his successful cancer treatment.
A Chain of Events
While working on the construction sites in Charleston, Shelly developed a hernia. When his family doctor confirmed the hernia diagnosis, he was referred to a local surgeon, and then to a urologist.
Shelly met with the urologist to discuss his symptoms and was recommended an intravenous pyelogram—or IVP—that uses an injectable dye to create an X-ray outline of the kidneys and surrounding structures.
“An hour later, I found out that I had a tennis ball-sized tumor in my kidney,” said Shelly. “Eventually, it was confirmed that I had asymptomatic kidney cancer with no family history.”
Falling into Place
At the time, Shelly’s wife was working for an obstetrician. “Her boss started making calls and making introductions,” he said.
The obstetrician had a phone call with Dr. Leonard Gomella at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital on a Friday, and by the end of the call, Brad had an appointment scheduled with Dr. Gomella for the following Monday.
Dr. Gomella, now the chair of the Department of Urology and Senior Director of Clinical Affairs for the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, had recently joined the Jefferson team from the surgery branch of the National Cancer Institute to help with the creation of an NCI-designated cancer center at Jefferson when he met the Shellys.
“I remember Brad was very young and he had a sizeable tumor,” said Dr. Gomella.
“I remember what Dr. Gomella said to this day,” said Shelly. “He said, ‘Well Brad, there’s nothing to do but go in there and get that the hell out.’
It was reassuring that he knew what to do and that he was confident in making it happen.”
In March of 1990, Brad Shelly had his left kidney removed. During the surgery, Dr. Gomella was able to confirm that the cancer had not spread, meaning he did not require further treatment.
“It helps to have cancer in an organ where you have two,” jokes Shelly. “And cancer treatment is such a challenge, so I was lucky to not require that. We did follow-ups for the first couple of years, but I have never needed additional treatments.”
Brad Shelly, now living in Colorado, has taken full advantage of life after cancer. He became a member of the Kidney Cancer Association—a national fundraising association introduced to him by Dr. Gomella—in the early 1990s.
“At my five year anniversary, and with my wife’s support, I biked from the Ohio state line to the Delaware River to raise money for the Association,” he said. “Then we did it again on my 10th, 15th and 20th anniversaries.”
That’s why, when the 30th anniversary drew near, he was compelled to write to Dr. Gomella.
“I knew this big anniversary was coming, and I’ve never minimized what it means,” said Shelly. “Just pure thankfulness. And everybody deserves a pat on the back.”
“Being cancer-free for 30 years is a testament to Brad, really,” said Dr. Gomella. “Patients get should get a lot of credit for their lifestyle choices, which are so important to healing.”
“Just after Brad left Jefferson, we started one of the first multidisciplinary genitourinary oncology clinics in the country,” said Dr. Gomella. “Now we see all of the patients at the same place at the same time. Having these specialists working together means collaboration and new ways of thinking.”
Dr. Gomella credits research being done around the world with the vast improvement in cancer treatment options since Brad was treated in 1990. Jefferson’s own research spans early drug discovery through late-stage trials for FDA approval. They also search for new diagnostic and surgical techniques, as early detection is the best medicine.
“It’s revolutionary,” he said. “Though he didn’t need it, when Brad was at Jefferson there was only one approved drug treatment for kidney cancer. Now we have about a dozen.”
But when it comes to long-term treatment success, Dr. Gomella is no stranger.
“This is such an interesting time for me,” said Dr. Gomella. “Recently I’ve heard from several patients from the ’80s and ’90s, and it’s so interesting to hear what they’re doing now. Some are doing polar plunges. Brad did those bike rides.
You go through life thinking about your influence and how their experience changed them. Hearing from patients after many years who are doing well is a great feeling.”