Life Extended After A Dire Diagnosis

A dad’s diagnosis of uveal melanoma wouldn’t keep him from his daughter’s wedding day.

Jim Thurber has led a wonderful life with his wife, Elizabeth.  Their shared interest in preserving the environment, especially in and around their home in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is reflected in their work. Jim’s a self-employed Virginia Land Surveyor and Liz is a licensed engineer working with the Stormwater Infrastructure Division of the Department of Environmental Services.

Jim and Liz share an even greater love for their only child, Virginia. “Ginny” graduated in December 2018 and was chosen to be student speaker of her nursing school class. She is now pursuing an advanced nursing degree, and in November 2019, married a wonderful guy. Best of all, Jim got to walk her down the aisle. He wasn’t quite sure would make it to the big day. Just a year before, Jim was diagnosed with metastatic uveal melanoma, an aggressive cancer of the eye that oftentimes spreads to the liver.  There is no cure.

The tumor in my eye was rather large because I’m one of those people who puts off going to the doctor. So we anticipated what the biopsy revealed.

—Jim Thurber

That he did live to see  Ginny’s important milestones is thanks to the groundbreaking research, innovative medical treatment and warm, personal care he received at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Jefferson Health (SKCC) in Philadelphia.

“My medical team and the nursing staff at SKCC helped me be part of my daughter’s greatest milestones — seeing her graduate with honors from nursing school, and several months later, giving her away in marriage,” sums up Jim. “Aside from having a perfect wife, there really is no other way to make a man happy than to see his baby girl become a woman of the world. So I asked my doctors for more time – and they gave it to me.  I consider what they have done for me to be a miracle, for which I am profoundly grateful.”

Jim’s condition originated in one of his eyes as uveal, or ocular, melanoma.  His retina specialist in Virginia referred him to Dr. Carol Shields, a renowned ocular oncologist in Jefferson’s Department of Ophthalmology. She successfully irradiated the tumor with a treatment called radioactive plaque therapy. But she also urged Jim to get a biopsy to determine if his melanoma had metastasized, or spread, to his liver.

“The tumor in my eye was rather large because I’m one of those people who puts off going to the doctor,” admits Jim.  “So we anticipated what the biopsy revealed.”

Graduation Day

Dr. Shields’ office recommended Jefferson for a biopsy and, if necessary, care of his metastatic uveal melanoma, as did another patient, referred to Liz by her boss, who had traveled all the way from California for treatment at SKCC. On their first visit, Jim and Liz met with medical oncologist Dr. Takami Sato of Jefferson’s Metastatic Uveal Melanoma Program, and other team members, including interventional radiologist Dr. Carin F. Gonsalves.  Patients nationwide seek out Jefferson for its in-depth expertise in the treatment of uveal melanoma.

Dr. Takami Sato

Dr. Takami Sato

After discussing treatment options with Jim and Liz, Drs. Sato and Gonsalves recommended a monthly regimen of immunoembolization, which involves injecting cytokines (drugs that stimulate or modulate immune responses) directly into the arteries supplying the liver. This was combined with embolization of the hepatic artery. The procedure improves the survival for patients with liver metastases from, at best, five months (under conventional treatment) to an average of 14.5 months. There are just a few other centers in the country that treat uveal (ocular) melanoma and none through immunoembolization.

Jim’s first monthly treatment was hard– on him and Liz. Jim was in tremendous pain for about a week, while Liz focused on mastering the regimen of medications Jim had to take. Fortunately, Jim felt better in a week or so – just in time to attend his daughter’s graduation and witness her delivering her speech as class student speaker.

“It was so great seeing my little girl up there talking to the crowd,” recalls Jim. “Liz and I homeschooled her for the entire 12 years of her primary and secondary education, so we felt especially proud of her accomplishment. We must have done something right!”

Coordinated Care

Since diagnosis, Jim has been able to maintain his work and personal activities. Happily, his subsequent monthly treatments – which required an overnight stay in Thomas Jefferson University Hospital — were much easier on Jim. But last October, after several months of life he might not otherwise have had — and just a couple of weeks before the wedding — Drs. Sato and Gonsalves detected some progression in his disease, which meant the immunoembolization was no longer working. At that point, they switched his treatment to chemoembolization, which has further extended his life. Jefferson also closely coordinated with a radiologist near Jim’s home in Virginia to administer radiation to a tumor that had developed on his lower back. This treatment helped to ensure Jim’s ability to walk his daughter down the aisle.

“We made sure all of our doctors in Virginia understood that Jefferson was the lead on Jim’s care,” notes Liz. “Jefferson is the only place that can provide or coordinate all of the care Jim needs, like the emergency tumor radiation.”

Jim Thurber posed with his wife Liz at their daughter's wedding
Jim posed with his wife Liz at their daughter's wedding.

Here Comes The Bride     

Finally came the big day. When Jim, clad in his elegant best, saw Ginny in her wedding gown, “I took one look at her and said, “Oh, my God, you’re beautiful – almost too beautiful to give away! But, of course, I did. It was thrilling – a rite of passage for Ginny and for me. I think every dad cherishes the moment he gets to do that–I certainly did!”

“We had made it clear to our doctors at Jefferson how important Jim’s making it to this day was to all of us,” stresses Liz. “And they worked with us in terms of scheduling treatment, whether up there or locally, and doing everything possible to make sure we made it.

“Dr. Sato, Dr. Gonsalves, and all of the other doctors and nurses on Jim’s care team always made us feel like we were the most important people in Thomas Jefferson University Hospital–whenever we were there to talk with them or be treated. They communicated unmistakably that they were going to do everything they could to keep Jim alive. At the same time, they always had warm smiles and good humor to make us feel comfortable.”

“The nurses are heaven-sent–they can lift me up when I’m in a grouchy mood,” adds Jim. “Dr. Gonsalves is doing a knock-out job, as is Dr. Sato and his research team. I may not have a cure, but one day, thanks to them, there will be a cure. In the meantime, I’ve had the chance to hang in to see my daughter on to her career and marriage, and that’s been an absolute blessing!”

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