A few years ago when Jerry Wesley of Witt attended his first event for the Montgomery County Cancer Association as a skin cancer survivor, he noted he was a one-year survivor.
“But then I really got to thinking about it, and I’ve been battling cancer for more than 40 years,” Wesley said.
A longtime educator and administrator, Wesley has been named this year’s Honorary Chairman by the Montgomery County Cancer Association.
He was initially selected last year, although the annual Birthday Party and Celebration of Life was cancelled due to the ongoing global pandemic.
This year’s event has also been cancelled, but the group is sending out information by mail and asking for donations to help with their mission. Anyone who would like to make a monetary contribution may send it to Montgomery County Cancer Association, 19 Circle Drive, Litchfield, IL 62056.
Over the past 40 years, Wesley has routinely seen a dermatologist. And while most of the spots he has had removed over the years dealt with “pre-cancerous cells,” it would later develop into a much more serious diagnosis.
“For a long time, I really didn’t think of myself as a cancer survivor,” Wesley said.
He recounted a time when he was serving as superintendent in the Morrisonville School District. A group was raising funds at an event for cancer survivors. Wesley said they asked all cancer survivors in attendance to meet down on the floor, but he didn’t go.
“I felt like that wasn’t me,” he said. “It was later that reality sank in. All cancer is serious. It doesn’t matter what kind.”
In 2015, Wesley noticed something strange when he was putting on his glasses. There was less space behind one of his ears, and he made the trip to see his regular physician, Dr. Bob Mulch, who referred him to a surgical specialist to check out the lump.
“Dr. (Phillip) Garcia came in and took one look at me and said it was squamous cell carcinoma,” Wesley said. “He was sure.”
A biopsy would confirm that the cancer cells usually confined to Wesley’s skin had moved internally. He had his first cancer surgery on Dec. 8, 2015, to remove the lump. After his first surgery, he was referred to Litchfield Oncology for 30 rounds of radiation and said he still has some side effects to this day, including dry mouth and damage to jaw teeth and salivary glands.
Shortly thereafter, some spots popped up on his forehead, and dermatologist Dr. Judith Knox referred him to Dr. Jamie McGinnis, a new surgical dermatologist, who specializes in Mohs procedures.
Wesley said he’d had a Mohs procedure done once before and had a spot the size of a dime removed.
The procedure is done on an outpatient basis. Surgeons remove a spot and then check for cancerous cells in the margins while patients wait in the waiting room.
“When it was my turn, they took a spot the size of a dime and sent me to the waiting room before telling me I had to do a little more,” Wesley said. “Suddenly the dime became a quarter, which became a half dollar.”
He would return the next day for more additional Mohs surgery as doctors had trouble isolating where the cancer cells were.
“That’s when reality set in,” Wesley said. “The Mohs surgery is especially designed to save your skin, but in this case, doctors were trying to save my life.”
Around the same time, Wesley would find another spot behind his ear. Since he had just had surgery to remove it, Dr. Mulch thought it likely to be a cyst, but it turned out to be a tumor.
Dr. Garcia would once again remove the tumor, adding that he didn’t usually see patients twice for this type of cancer. Wesley said Dr. Garcia told him he got everything he could see, but that they wouldn’t be able to keep going after the cancer surgically.
In November 2015, he was referred to see Dr. Tonya Wildes at the Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis, MO. After looking over his records, she told the Wesley family he wasn’t a candidate for any more surgery or radiation and that chemotherapy is not typically effective for this type of cancer. Dr. Wildes told him about a clinical trial that deals with this type of cancer, but said it was already full.
“When we were leaving, my daughter said that we just weren’t going to do nothing, which left our only option to try chemo,” Wesley said.
He began a few rounds of chemo in Taylorville before getting a call from Dr. Leonel Hernandez that he might qualify for the clinical trial using immunotherapy.
As he got underway with the clinical trial, things started off really well. But a few weeks in, and Wesley developed a blood infection and ended up in the hospital. He worried it would mean the end of the clinical trial for him, but Dr. Hernandez said he would get him right back in the cycle.
The immunotherapy treatments are designed to “rev up” a patient’s own immune system to fight off the cancer cells. Wesley said that in just five treatments, a tumor on his neck from shrunk from the size of a walnut to the size of a pea. Eight treatments later, it was gone entirely.
“The scans began to show signs of no cancer,” Wesley said.
He participated in the clinical trial for a year and a half and was one of the biggest success stories of the treatment. Wesley was even one of ten patients featured in an article about the drug in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Wesley still has a copy of it.
After that, he returned for scans every four months, and they continued to remain clear.
Until a few months ago, Wesley found a place on his neck by his collar bone. A visit to the doctors confirmed it was the return of his cancer, but they had to decide how to treat it.
He returned to Dr. Hernandez and the medical team at Siteman where he tried the same drug he used in the clinical trial, which is now on the market. After four cycles in 12 weeks, the tumor had not shrunk, but it had also not grown.
On June 1, 2021, Wesley had another skin cancer surgery to remove that tumor, and is currently recovering from that.
“My story is that all cancer is serious and should be taken seriously,” he said.
He added that anyone dealing with cancer needs a good support system, and he felt lucky to live in Montgomery County.
“It takes the whole tribe,” he said.
Wesley said that his wife, Ruth, and children, Kim, Trisha, John and Melissa, were at the top of his support system, along with his wife’s family, who provided lots of rides to and from treatments over the years. He’s also grateful to his church family at the Witt United Methodist Church and lots of friends, who helped along the way, including Mike and Sharon Wood of Litchfield, who sent many cards of encouragement.
In addition to family and friends, Wesley is grateful to his medical team, who continue to communicate with one another on his care.
“Dr. Bob (Mulch) probably saved my life,” Wesley said. “I call my medical crew my champions.”
And then there’s the Montgomery County Cancer Association.
Wesley agreed to serve as their Honorary Chairman this year to help them raise awareness about the seriousness of cancer and also to sing their praises for the support they provide to cancer patients all over the county.
“I have been amazed at how successful the MCCA is to raise funds and awareness and supporting patients and research,” Wesley said. “For a county of less than 30,000 people to raise over $100,000 every year is pretty amazing. And we truly appreciate all they do.”