After two melanoma diagnoses, a family reflects on their experiences at MD Anderson
Sam Gee was preparing for a wrestling tournament his freshman year of high school when a referee pointed out a suspicious spot on his back. He didn’t worry much about the spot, a mole he first noticed after an injury as a small child. Still, if Sam wanted to compete that season, he would need to get it checked out. A few weeks after a shave biopsy, Sam and his family learned he had melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer.
His dermatologist recommended that Sam seek treatment at MD Anderson. Soon, Sam and his mother, Ashley, were making frequent trips from San Antonio to Houston so he could receive immunotherapy and undergo surgery at MD Anderson.
“The first time we visited, walking up to the front door felt intimidating,” Ashley says. “But once we were there, everyone made us feel so welcome. After that, there was no question in my mind that we were in the right place.”
Sam agrees, recalling how his care team made him feel at ease during a turbulent time. “There's just something about it that you can't see in an advertisement,” he says. “MD Anderson is the place to be.”
Adapting to a melanoma diagnosis as a teenager
Sam recalls how as a 14-year-old, cancer was the last thing he expected. He didn’t know anyone else his age who was facing a cancer diagnosis. “It was a feeling of great shock. I had no idea what to think,” he recalls. “I quickly realized things were going to start changing.”
His mindset became: “Things are going to be different now. Time to adapt.”
And indeed, life did change drastically – not only for Sam but for everyone. Just a few weeks after his cancer diagnosis in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“The world shut down, and I was shutting down with it,” he says. “Right as I quit being able to attend school, everybody quit being able to attend school. Everybody kind of hid away during COVID-19, and that was definitely what I wanted to do during my cancer experience. I just wanted to put a hood on, duck down and finish it out.”
In addition to having several lymph nodes removed, Sam underwent several rounds of immunotherapy, including ipilimumab and nivolumab.
“I remember one of his doctors saying that 10 years ago this was a death sentence, but now with immunotherapy, it was something that could be cured,” Ashley says. “That gave me hope throughout his treatment. I always hung onto those words.”
After months of treatment, Sam was declared cancer-free in 2021. He still visits MD Anderson for check-ups several times a year, but his day-to-day life looks much more typical than it was three years ago. He is currently wrapping up his senior year of high school and preparing to study computer science at Texas A&M University at Galveston in the fall.
A second melanoma diagnosis in the family
Less than two years after Sam’s diagnosis, his grandmother, Suzan Taff, was diagnosed with acral lentiginous melanoma, a rare type of skin cancer not caused by sun exposure. After the family’s positive experience at MD Anderson during Sam’s treatment, Suzan says she knew exactly where she wanted to go for her own treatment.
“I admired how Sam went through it all so well. I told him that he would be my guide,” says Suzan. “I was so pleased with his success that I never was afraid of anything. I knew I was going to be alright because I could see that Sam was alright.”
Suzan’s cancer has responded well to surgery and immunotherapies, such as ipilimumab, nivolumab, TVEC and pembrolizumab. She says the treatments are not painful and that she’s been able to continue doing the activities she enjoys. Although her tumors respond well to immunotherapy, new ones continuously emerge, so she remains on maintenance therapy with nivolumab. Suzan remains confident her doctors are providing her with the best possible care.
“My time at MD Anderson has been extremely positive and productive,” she says. “Even though some of my results have been mixed, I still feel like everybody there is working toward my benefit. I can’t say enough good things about them.”
“Dr. Allison has changed the entire way of treating cancer, especially melanoma,” Suzan says. “I was thrilled to have the opportunity to express our gratitude for his persistence. He spent all of Sam’s lifetime working on these drugs, and by the time Sam needed them, they were available. I told Dr. Allison that I thought he did all that work just for Sam.”
Sam calls Dr. Allison one of his role models. “It was quite the experience to be able to look face-to-face with the man and tell him, ‘Thank you for saving my life,’” Sam says. “It was incredible to shake his hand and take a photo with the man who is responsible for saving me and so many others through his discoveries.”
Sam often reflects on the medical advances, like Dr. Allison’s, that made his recovery possible and gave his family hope for his grandmother.
“I have so much hope that we’re close to the cure now,” he says. “Not long ago, you had three main treatment methods: cut, kill, burn. But now with immunotherapy, we’re teaching the body to fight cancer itself. That’s why we must continue to dive deeper through research because the treatments are going to keep getting better.”
Drs. Allison and Sharma pose for a photo with Sam Gee and his family at “A Conversation With A Living Legend” in San Antonio on Nov. 18, 2022. From left to right: Ashley Gee, Bill Taff, Suzan Taff, Foster Sinclair, Dr. Padmanee Sharma, Dr. James P. Allison, Sam Gee.