The first thing you notice about Jules Rauch is that he may be the most youthful 75-year-old you will ever meet.
"I was always active in fishing with my father," Jules says, smiling at the memory, "and I continue to fish to this day. I enjoy it and find it to be a great activity. So much so, in fact, that after I retired I spent some years as a professional tournament fisherman."
He settles comfortably back into his chair, adjusting his glasses and stroking the strands of dark hair that still circle the perimeter of his head, as he continues to tell his story.
"It all started in 2004," he says, touching a spot just above his glasses. "I had been out in the sun for many years, and then suddenly one day I had a melanoma on my forehead."
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer, usually associated with a history of overexposure to the sun, especially the ultraviolet rays.
"Four years later, I popped up a bump on the left side of my face, right in front of my ear," Jules recalls, grimacing at the thought. "That turned out to be the first sign of metastatic melanoma."
Metastatic melanoma is melanoma that has spread to other parts of your body. In this phase, it's also referred to as advanced or Stage IV melanoma. In latter stages, it can metastasize - or spread - to tissue under the skin, and ultimately to the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, brain, and even bone.
While traditional treatment plans have enabled metastatic melanoma patients to live longer and better lives to a degree, it has not historically been curable in most cases.
Even with a full array of conventional treatment therapies, Jules experienced four recurrences of his cancer between 2004 and 2010. In the course of dealing with the last episode of the four, the disease was the most aggressive.
"In June 2010," he says, lowering his voice, "I got a very unfortunate report from my doctor. The cancer had reappeared in my back, my right clavicle and shoulder, and in both of my lungs. At that time I was given four months to live".
He was also given a small ray of hope. "I was told that the only opportunity I had for life was to find an institution that would accept me into a clinical trial of this new immunotherapy treatment targeting melanoma."
At that point, Jules believed he needed nothing less than a miracle.
"I didn't have very long to live." Even now, he struggles to say these words. "One thing led to another, I heard about this new program, and I was able to speak with Dr. Lynn Schuchter on the phone. She listened to my story, she was very kind, and she made arrangements to extend her workday late on a Friday afternoon to see me.
"That afternoon, she accepted me as a patient."
Dr. Lynn Schuchter is the Chief of Hematology/Oncology at Penn Medicine, and one of the leaders of the hospital's clinical investigations program. She is also leader of the Melanoma Program at Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center, focusing on new approaches to treatment and prevention.
"We're basically practicing new kinds of medicine," says Dr. Schuchter. "Once we understand the genetic profile of a particular melanoma, we can then use molecularly targeted therapies. In cases like this one, immunotherapy can shut down the broken machinery in a cancer cell and effectively kill the cancer cells."
Jules recounts the next part of the story.
"I finished the trial in the early part of October 2010, and I had a CT PET Scan one month following my last infusion." His lips are trembling, and his voice is shaking. "Dr. Schuchter called me on the phone the minute she got the report. It said that my cancer, in every area, was clear."
Even now, three years later, he can barely speak the words.
"My cancer was gone."
The revolutionary and personalized care Jules received from Penn's Abramson Cancer Center allowed him to get back to living his life.
"Today, I'm coming up on my third anniversary of being clear of metastatic melanoma," Jules says, nodding and breaking into a smile. "Every time I went in to have an appointment, or have my infusion, I was met with great care. I can't say enough about the team of people who cared for me at Penn Medicine."
"You just need to have the confidence, which is what Dr. Schuchter gave me. She said at my initial interview, 'We're going to make you well.' And that she did."