In 2005, Shannon Gaudette, 48, was diagnosed with melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. Since then, Shannon endured numerous surgeries, as well as radiation therapy, before receiving a new immunotherapy treatment she first heard about through the Save Your Skin Foundation.
Shannon continued these treatments for four years, and after a 13th surgery, and her 83rd immunotherapy infusion, she is currently tumour-free. Innovative Medicines Canada (IMC) recently had the opportunity to speak with Shannon about her experience. Find out more about Shannon’s journey below.
IMC: Your journey with melanoma has been difficult, but your story is also incredibly powerful. You took on melanoma and motherhood at the same time. Can you tell us more about that experience?
Shannon: My husband (Brad) and I made the heartbreaking decision to stop trying to have children. We felt it would be irresponsible to have a child with my health status being so unpredictable. However, despite us taking every preventative measure, I ended up getting pregnant at the beginning of 2011. Things were going well throughout my pregnancy and I was beginning to get over my initial fears of being pregnant with my health conditions. Unfortunately, my pregnancy was about to become significantly more challenging.
When I was 24-weeks pregnant, my husband found me collapsed in the shower, so we immediately went to the ER where we told them about my history of melanoma. They ordered an MRI of my brain and the scan revealed two massive brain tumours.
The only option that was offered to us at the hospital, was to put me on life support until Madeline was far enough along to be delivered by C-Section. As my husband wouldn’t accept that as an option we were transferred to Royal Columbian, which has an incredible neurosurgery team and a neonatal ward that had the capability to take care of an infant as early as 24 weeks.
In the end, both tumours were successfully removed by neurosurgery. On August 5, 2011, Madeline was delivered by caesarean. Soon after, I began whole brain radiation. My follow-up MRI was clear, but my full body CT revealed tumours in my lungs and liver. Thankfully in September 2011, I was also able to receive four infusions of the initial Immunotherapy treatment available to advanced melanoma patients. This promising, innovative, new treatment, which I had heard about from the Save Your Skin Foundation, stimulates the immune system to fight cancer cells throughout the body.
I had just been given the most amazing gift possible, the birth of our daughter, and now I was having to deal with the fears and worries about the state of my health. My worst fear was not being there for my daughter and missing all of those special moments a parent experiences watching their child grow up. I refer to Madeline as “a magical force” because her amazing spirit and the love and support of my husband, helped me through some really difficult times.
IMC: In 2014, you and your oncologist agreed that you should start an innovative immunotherapy drug. Can you share how your life started to change after this decision?
Shannon: Early on, I had an “I’m going to fight this” mindset. After having Madeline, it became even more important to not let anything stand in my way; I needed to be there for my husband and daughter no matter the circumstances.
In 2014, when my disease resurfaced, with the support from the Save Your Skin Foundation and my oncologist, I was able to access a second immunotherapy treatment through Health Canada’s Special Access Program.
I had my first infusion on June 19, 2014, and I started to feel strong again and that really provided me with so much hope! While there were certainly other complications throughout my journey, my health continued to make steady progress.
I continued with my treatment for about four more years. In July of 2018, I had my 13th surgery, and then in January 2019 I had my first clear PET scan. By July 31, I had completed my 83rd, and last, immunotherapy drug infusion, and I’m happy to report that I am currently considered tumor free.
IMC: Earlier you spoke about the importance of innovation in medicines. What would you say to individuals working to bring more of these medicines to Canada?
Shannon: Without access to innovative medicines and drugs, I wouldn’t be here today. For me, innovation in medicines is essential because treatments like chemotherapy and radiation (if the tumour is big) do not work for melanoma and other forms of cancer.
How these medicines and drugs are evolving is incredibly encouraging to see. During my treatment with the innovative immunotherapy drug I was taking, I was able to drive myself to and from the hospital because I didn’t experience the side effects that I would have had with other treatments. I was able to live as normal a life as I could between my surgeries, and even after each one of my surgeries. Immunotherapy really helped me throughout the recovery process.
To those working to bring more innovative medicines to Canada I would say keep doing what you’re doing because these drugs and are not only saving people’s lives, but also allowing patients to live a somewhat “normal life” while undergoing treatment.
Ultimately, innovation has allowed me to continue living a wonderful life with my beautiful family.