Global IT executive John Gillis is backing the team of Mass General cancer researchers and clinicians who developed and applied the most advanced therapies to save him from life-threatening melanoma.

When John Gillis was diagnosed with recurring melanoma, a highly-skilled team of doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital successfully treated him for this fast-moving, deadly skin cancer. Now Mr. Gillis and his wife Sandra have used innovative fundraising tools to direct more than $100,000 to the Mass General Cancer Center and the Henri and Belinda Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies.

Years of painstaking research undertaken by scientists at Mass General and in labs around the world deepened our understanding of gene alterations that trigger melanoma.

In the fall of 2009, Mr. Gillis, of Westborough, Mass., was working hard at Virtusa Corp., the global IT services company that he and his wife, Sandra, co-founded with Kris and Tushara Canekeratne in 1996. It has since grown to employ more than 10,000 people worldwide. One day, during his annual physical, Mr. Gillis’ physician found a suspicious mole on his back. It proved to be melanoma.

Kenneth Tanabe, MD, chief of Surgical Oncology at Mass General removed the melanoma. Initially, he had good news for the Gillises.

Finding Unexpected Trouble

“The melanoma was thin, it wasn’t deep, it shouldn’t have been too much of a problem,” Mr. Gillis says. He expected to return to Mass General only for regular skin checks.

But in 2010, Mr. Gillis noticed a lump under his arm. A CT scan identified a cluster of worrisome lymph nodes. Within days, Dr. Tanabe had removed nearly forty lymph nodes infiltrated by melanoma cells.

Now the news was not good. Mr. Gillis had advanced melanoma. As a businessman with vision and drive, he had long-range plans for every realm of his life. “You get a diagnosis like this,” he says, “and you begin to think all that planning may be for naught.”

Revolution in Melanoma Treatment

Melanoma Keith Flaherty, MD,
Keith Flaherty, MD, director of the Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies.

Not long ago, that might have been true. Chemotherapy, a formidable foe for many cancers, had little effect on melanoma. Most people with advanced-stage melanoma died in six to nine months.

“From 40 years ago to four years ago, there was no change in life expectancy,” says Keith Flaherty, MD, director of the Termeer Center, who, along with Dr. Tanabe and Helen Shih, MD, associate medical director of the Francis H. Burr Proton Therapy Center, was a key member of the team caring for Mr. Gillis.

A radical shift occurred in 2011 when the first of several FDA-approved targeted therapies and immunotherapies for melanoma was introduced.

Years of Painstaking Research

Now, Dr. Flaherty says, average survival time for advanced melanoma is two years, and heading toward three years. Some patients seem to achieve long-lasting, possibly permanent, remission, although further research must confirm this. “It’s been quite a revolution,” Dr. Flaherty says.

What changed? Years of painstaking research undertaken by scientists at Mass General and in labs around the world deepened understanding of gene alterations that trigger melanoma. New drugs have been developed to target cells containing specific gene alterations, or other aberrant molecules, while leaving normal cells largely unscathed.

Additionally, Mass General research has helped illuminate how cancer cells elude the immune system. This exciting science blazed the way for immunotherapies that uncloak cancer cells or rev up the body’s immune responses to attack tumors. Studies show immunotherapies work particularly well against melanoma.

Weathering Setbacks

While the pace of progress aided Mr. Gillis enormously, his path forward wasn’t easy. After he completed a taxing but helpful course of interferon, an older therapy that energizes the immune system, a scan identified a small brain metastasis.

Mass General research has helped illuminate how cancer cells elude the immune system. This exciting science blazed the way for immunotherapies that uncloak cancer cells or rev up the body’s immune responses to attack tumors.

Fortunately, another advance available at Mass General—stereotactic radiation therapy delivered precisely to the tumor site—destroyed it. Two more metastases in his brain received the same treatment and he also benefited from newly approved immunotherapy and targeted therapy drugs.

At a dark moment, Mr. Gillis told Dr. Shih the brain metastases really worried him. Dr. Shih’s words gave him strength. “You’re not just anywhere, you’re here at Mass General,” he remembers her saying. “You’re not with anyone, you’re with Dr. Flaherty. And you’re not anyone, you’re you.”

Raising Funds, Changing Lives

Today, Mr. Gillis enjoys his family, work and golf. His scans have been cancer-free for well over a year. Crediting amazing doctors, warm, personalized care, cutting-edge research, and the collaborative approach at Mass General as lifesavers, the Gillises are expanding their already active fundraising efforts. This spring, they will help host the Mass General Cancer Center the one hundred gala.

The Gillises are harnessing the power of social media on their own fundraising site to educate others and seek contributions from individuals and corporations. Their goals? To raise awareness and funds for the tools that detect melanoma early and propel research on targeted and immunological therapies that change lives.

For more information about supporting cancer care and research at Mass General, please contact us.