Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University

Human Resources

Jill with her husband and two sons
Jill with her husband and two sons

Jill’s health journey began in 2010 with blurred vision in her left eye when she was 26 weeks pregnant. A diagnosis of uveal melanoma, a rare cancer of the eye, quickly followed, as did a tough decision—should she risk treatment while carrying her child to term?

A career as an actuary and doing due diligence on mergers and acquisitions taught her how to ask questions and depend on other people to prepare her for something she knew little about. “I reached out to family and close friends over email,” she says, “and I said, this is what happened, here are 8 or 9 questions I have that I need answers to.” Her email went “mini-viral,” and she heard from many people living through circumstances similar to hers.

“It was really remarkable,” she recalls—and informative, with many of her newfound contacts pointing her in the direction of Wills Eye Hospital and Dr. Carol Shields, an authority on ocular cancer. In the care of Shields, Jill’s eye was removed, and she was fitted for a prosthesis. She also gave birth to a healthy baby boy, John, now five-years-old.

At a follow-up in 2012, she found out the cancer had spread to her liver as it does in 90% of ocular melanoma patients with metastases. Shields quickly referred her to the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center and Takami Sato, MD, PhD, who is leading the basic science push to understand and develop new ways of fighting uveal melanoma.

She was also introduced to Carin Gonsalves, MD, another member of her “healing team” and co-director of the interventional radiology division at TJUH. If Sato is the coach, then Gonsalves is the quarterback, managing the action, not from the sidelines, but the bedside, directly overseeing and administering Jill’s care.

“I trust her intellectual, academic side to make good recommendations and bring forth creative solutions,” says Jill. To this end, Gonsalves has gotten big results through a thoughtful combination of the standard anti-cancer playbook and new therapies like immunoembolization, a procedure in which tiny drug-eluting beads are placed near the liver via catheter, boosting the immune response in the immediate vicinity of a tumor.

“Dr. G and Jefferson have been nothing but gracious in collaborating with my doctors in Chicago,” she says, “which has been huge for me since I have two young boys, a husband and a job.”

In parallel with the care she received from Dr. Gonsalves, Jill made the decision to make health a central part of her life. Unsurprisingly, her research came down to diet, exercise and sleep, she reports, going on to explain how this cashes out as a preference for home-cooked, veggie-heavy meals and a renewed sense of purpose in her day-to-day.

“The statistics help my team and I make choices,” she says, “but they do not tell you exactly how you as a person are going to respond to a treatment, so I try to be very intentional with how I talk. It helps me acknowledge the reality of what I have, while still being gentle with myself.”

Jill returned to Philadelphia for “tune-ups,” as she and Gonsalves call her embolizations. After a dozen in the past few years, she and her husband, Jeff, treat these “medical errands” as weekend outings, a chance to eat a nice dinner and spend time together without being on call for kid-duty. The trust in her team is there; all that remains is for her to hold up her end of the deal—keeping her mind in the game.

“I always bring headphones with me,” says Jill, revealing her secret weapon. “Waiting rooms can be stressful places, so I try to focus as much as possible on feeling good.” She often watches a funny movie or listens to music with her husband, so she’ll be relaxed and in top form for her “healing treatments.”

“There’s always a lot of laughter,” she says of her visits to Jefferson, “I’m just preparing my body and trying to absorb it all.”