Survivor Stories

Josh Denney, Stage IV

Diagnosed: 08/15/2014

I was first diagnosed with melanoma during the summer of 2014 at the age of 29. A mole on my back had started to bleed one day when scratched and I went and had it removed at a local dermatologist’s office. The lab diagnosis came back fairly quickly as being a malignant melanoma and I was referred to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City.

At this point the disease was not considered likely to spread. My skin lesion was not very large or deep but as a precautionary measure a sentinel lymph node biopsy was conducted, removing two dyed nodes under my left arm. To the surprise of my doctors, one node had a very very small melanoma deposit. My wife and I were devastated as we were just learning about the disease and its deadly and aggressive nature. I then had surgery to remove all of the lymph nodes from my left armpit area. Luckily, none of these came back positive for the disease and I was offered follow up chemo or an experimental vaccine clinical trial. After discussing my case with my doctors, I chose to go with the vaccine due to the low chance that my disease had spread any further and cost (I did not have medical insurance when I was originally diagnosed).

I received the vaccine and regular monitoring scans every three months for a year and a half following my second surgery. Throughout this time, I felt pretty good although apprehensive. I had one small spot in my lower left lung that showed up on scans but never grew during this time. My doctors remained optimistic that it was unrelated but kept an eye on it. Finally my scan interval was changed to six months, I was ecstatic and tried hard to move on with my life and push melanoma out of my mind.

Five months after my scan interval change I began to notice some pressure and difficulty breathing. Cancer was not the first thing on my mind and I went to a local clinic expecting an upper respiratory infection diagnosis and some antibiotics. A cautionary x-ray was done and showed my worst fear. The small spot in my left lung had grown into a substantial tumor with what turned out to be over a liter of fluid creating all of the pressure I felt. At this point I thought my life was over. I made preparations to leave my job and undergo whatever treatment was available to me. I went to my doctors in Salt Lake and had a CT and MRI done as well as a scope biopsy in the bottom of my left lung (that was by far the most uncomfortable procedure I have ever had done). The CT showed nothing further than was already known, the biopsy confirmed it was melanoma and the brain MRI held more bad news, two brain mets. My doctor, Ken Grossman recommended I undergo a combination therapy of Nivolumab and Ipilimumab which I began immediately. I also had stereotactic radiosurgery on one brain met (the other disappeared on a follow-up MRI before treatment). I was only able to take two doses of the combination therapy before developing severe liver toxicity. Again I was devastated.  I had 104 degree fevers every night for weeks and was on steroids. I had another CT scan a few weeks later to help determine the best course of action and to see what effect, if any, the drugs had had. Miraculously my brain mets were nowhere to be found and my lung tumor had been almost totally eliminated. Dr. Grossman is a very level headed, polite, college professor type so when he told me I should go home and celebrate this partial victory I did.

I am now another six months past receiving any treatment. I am being actively monitored and have another series of appointments this week. I wish I could say I am as positive as I was immediately following treatment but I have one small persistent spot in my lower left lung again and can’t help but feel like my fight is not yet over. My wife and my family have been invaluable throughout my fight, helping me research and get through my many “down” days. The treatment I have received and the attitude of my doctors at The Huntsman Cancer Institute has been amazing. Dr Brittany Murphy and Robert Andtbacka and their teams during my earlier stages and Dr. Kenneth Grossman and Lindsey Burt and their teams now. I feel like I have been very lucky, new therapies have lengthened my life beyond what was possible just a few years ago. I am physically very healthy and get to do the activities I love with the people I love every day and that keeps me going.

To all of my fellow melanoma warriors out there, hold your loved ones and keep fighting! More new treatments are constantly entering trial and this disease will be defeated!