Confronting a melanoma diagnosis as a pathologist and patient

As a pathologist and inventor, Dr. Tom Grogan has spent a lifetime discovering smarter, safer, better ways to diagnose cancer. That’s why his own cancer diagnosis came as a shock.

“I had a little pea-sized bump on the top of my head. My dermatologist didn't think there was much to it. But the biopsy came back and the diagnosis was malignant melanoma,” he says of the 2015 discovery of this potentially lethal type of skin cancer.

A pathologist for more than 40 years, Tom founded Ventana Medical Systems in 1985 in Tucson, Arizona. Acquired by Roche in 2008, the company develops and manufactures automated diagnostic instruments and cancer tests that provide medical insights, touching the lives of more than 26 million patients globally each year - including those affected by skin cancers.

“I was surprised because I felt perfectly fine,” says Tom, who looked at his own cells under a microscope and knew how deadly his cancer could be.

“It’s so odd to think that something the size of a pea could kill you.”
Dr. Tom Grogan
Founder Emeritus, Roche Tissue Diagnostics

Tom was among the first melanoma patients to be accepted into a ground-breaking cancer immunotherapy trial. He traveled to Los Angeles every three weeks for his immunotherapy infusions, with the hope that his immune system would kick in to attack the cancer.

A year later, Tom was declared cancer free.

Because the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, however, there was an 80 percent chance that it would come back, according to a table that predicts these things. “It turns out the table is quite accurate,” Tom said. “It came back six years, 35 days and 12 hours later.”

As he battles this disease for a second time, Tom experiences an unexpected sense of elation during immunotherapy infusions,

“There’s an odd feeling that’s almost euphoric at the moment of infusion of ‘you’re not going to get me, cancer. I’m going to get you.’ It’s a counteroffensive.”
Dr. Tom Grogan
Founder Emeritus, Roche Tissue Diagnostics

As he enters the maintenance period of his treatment, receiving infusions every six weeks, Tom greets each day with optimism and gratitude.

“Once I finish maintenance, I will have every kind of scan and diagnostic test they can come up with. And if there is no evidence of disease, I can go off maintenance and be on my way. That's what we're going for.”

Fast facts

While not as common as other forms of skin cancer, malignant melanoma, which can be challenging to diagnose, is far more dangerous. If not diagnosed and treated early, it can quickly spread to other organs. In 2020, about 325,000 new cases of melanoma were diagnosed worldwide and 57,000 people died.1

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  1. (Accessed Sept 2022)


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