Taking on melanoma and motherhood

Melanoma patient shares her survival story: “I just remember thinking ‘I’m going to die’”

Shannon Gaudette has been living with the most serious form of skin cancer and related health challenges since being diagnosed in 2005. She has survived with courage, a supportive husband, and help from an innovative medicine to shrink her tumours. This is her story.

“My name is Shannon Gaudette, I am 48 years old, I have been married to my husband Brad for 15 years, we have a 9-year-old daughter named Madeline and I have been living with melanoma since 2005.”

After having a seemingly harmless mole removed from her right arm, she received the life-altering diagnosis at a follow-up appointment. 

I felt like I had been hit by a truck. I just remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die. I am 33 years old. I just got married and now I’m going to die?’ It was like a cruel joke.

Following a second surgery, her X-rays, ultrasounds and blood work were all clear for a few years. Then, in 2009, Shannon found another lump under the same arm. She was referred once again to her oncologist.

“During that appointment, he palpated the lump, he sent me for a surgical consult that same day and I had surgery later that week. The large node had a small amount of melanoma in it but the four other nodes that were removed were clear. Again, terror filled my world! Where else was it?  If it’s been in my body moving around for four and a half years, where else was it?”

Shannon received radiation and things were improving. But she felt her future was uncertain.

“Brad and I made the heart-wrenching decision to cease trying for a family. We both felt it would be unethical and irresponsible to bring a child into the world with my health still in question. I felt really strongly about our decision and eventually was at total peace with the fact we would just be Aunty and Uncle to our amazing nieces and nephews.”

But, despite taking every precaution, nature had other ideas. When she was late, she took a pregnancy test just to put her mind at ease.

“To my shock and surprise, it was positive. I burst into tears and called Brad immediately. He was in as much shock as I was. The first thing he said was ‘How is that even possible?’ He was thrilled and I was terrified. What if things didn’t go well?”

Despite her concerns, she became increasingly excited about Madeline’s impending arrival. There were complications including numbness and total exhaustion. And then, another setback.

“On June 10th, when I was 24-weeks pregnant, my husband found me collapsed in the shower, unable to stand up on my own. He got me dressed, got me into the car and took me to the ER. We told them about my history of melanoma and they instantly ordered an MRI of my brain — this was when our lives changed forever! The scan showed two massive brain tumours! I just remember staring at the MRI and thinking ‘My God, what now?’”

Chaos ensued for the family-to-be.

“Shortly after the MRI diagnosis, I started decompensating rapidly. Quite quickly, I lost all muscle strength, I had no use of my arms or legs, I had excruciating spasms in my legs, I started to get very confused and I lost my ability to speak. Brad was told by the hospitalist and neurosurgeon that there was nothing they could do. They could do the neurosurgery but the surgeon told Brad that he would probably do more harm than good and if things went south with me, they didn’t have the capabilities to take care of an infant at 24 weeks.”

It didn’t look good and Brad wasn’t given much hope that either of us would make it.

“Just as the medical team was looking at intubating me, as putting me on life support until Madeline was far enough along to be delivered by C-Section, was the only option they could provide, one of the Obstetricians in the hospital came up with the idea of transferring me to Royal Columbian. The hospital had an amazing neurosurgery team and a neonatal ward that had the capability to take care of an infant as early as 24 weeks.”

Shannon was transferred by ambulance and taken to the ICU, where she was quickly stabilized with much-needed medication. Her neurosurgeon insisted the tumours would have to be removed immediately and so she was once again headed for surgery. The surgeon could not guarantee if she would walk or talk again, nor if he could get both tumours out.

In the end, both tumours were successfully removed.

“Brad anxiously waited for me to wake up. When I finally woke up, other than the nurses, he was one of the first person I saw. The nurse asked me if I knew who he was, and I said it was my husband. She asked me if I knew his name, and I said ‘Bradley’, and I remember him bursting into tears. I was still unable to move a muscle but I was alive and so was Madeline!”

Shannon worked hard on her physical recovery while she was still pregnant. Her post-op MRI was totally clear, so they made a clear plan for delivery and for post-delivery cancer treatments, including radiation and immunotherapy. On August 5th, Madeline was delivered by caesarean.

“The surgery went well! For 32 weeks she was a good weight, 5 lbs 10 oz, and she was healthy and beautiful. The most beautiful thing I had ever seen — and she was our little girl!”

Shortly after, she began whole brain radiation. Her follow-up MRI was clear, but her full body CT revealed a tumour in her lung and two in her liver.

“I had just been given the most amazing gift possible, the birth of our daughter, and now I was dealing with the fears and worries about the status of my health. My worst fear was not being there for her and missing all of those amazing moments a parent experiences while watching their child grow up.

I made a commitment to myself to do whatever I needed to do to beat this horrible disease, so I could be there for Madeline and Bradley.

One promising treatment was an innovative immunotherapy medication for advanced melanoma that stimulates the immune system to fight cancer cells throughout the body.

“I felt so powerful when I was doing treatment. I visualized every drop of the drug seeking out my tumours and gobbling them up.”

The tumours had regressed significantly when difficulties with severe colitis required high-dose anti-inflammatory and corticosteroid treatments. Shannon’s colitis was dealt with – and has not returned since – but would preclude her from accessing clinical trials in future. With no systemic treatment available to her, she would have to rely on radiation and surgical options.

With several surgeries to remove tumours along with ongoing gut issues, pain, dizziness and low blood hemoglobin, Shannon was confused and scared. Her oncology team planned another surgery.

“The surgery was quite involved, as by the time they opened me up things were quite messy. My small bowel was perforated and full of disease. They ended up removing four feet in total.”

She continued to lose weight.

We all agreed that I needed to start the latest breakthrough immunotherapy drug, ASAP. My life depended on it.

She applied and was granted access to the innovative medicine through Health Canada’s Special Access Program. A PET scan showed Shannon had a total of 13 metastatic tumours or ‘mets’ throughout her body.

“I had my first infusion on June 19th! It was amazing. I felt strong again! In the middle of August, after my 3rd infusion, I started noticing some regression in my tumours. I was up to 130lbs and my hemoglobin was at 120!”

While there were more complications, Shannon made steady progress.

“I continued on with my treatment for four more years. After a 13th surgery in July of 2018, I had my first clear PET scan in January. I did my 83rd and last immunotherapy drug infusion on July 31st, 2019, and I’m currently considered tumor free.”

She wanted to share her story of perseverance, as well as a message for those involved in developing innovative medicines.

“On behalf of all Cancer patients, PLEASE keep up the amazing work you do! You are helping save lives, you are offering hope and you are the light in maybe an otherwise very dark day for someone.”