When it comes to skin cancer, early detection and prompt treatment are critical, especially for melanoma, a dangerous form of the disease. For longtime Extra entertainment reporter and melanoma survivor Jerry Penacoli, this was a lesson he learned quickly. Eight years after his diagnosis, Jerry is cancer-free and regularly shares his story with family, friends and viewers.
A Painful Past
“It was just a tiny brown freckle on my inner right thigh,” Jerry recalls. “Then, practically overnight, it became black and slightly raised. Had it been on my back or another less visible part of my body, I never would have known it was there.”
Jerry says his doctor was optimistic when he biopsied the lesion and didn’t think it was anything to be concerned about. Unfortunately, he was wrong: The biopsy came back positive for melanoma, and further testing confirmed the cancer was stage III.
“When I heard the word ‘cancer,’ first I cried, then I became paralyzed with fear, then I sprang into action,” Jerry says. Stage III melanoma means the tumor has metastasized to other parts of the body, spreading to the lymph nodes, creating a much more serious and aggressive cancer. Four days after his diagnosis, he was in surgery to remove the growth from his thigh, plus 22 nearby lymph nodes.
An Emmy Award winner, Jerry has covered many of Extra’s high-profile and exclusive interviews, such as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, George Clooney and President Obama. Through all the glitz and glam of the entertainment world, Jerry’s diagnosis was a shocking reality check. “I’ve talked to a lot of stars over the years [including Robert De Niro and Christina Applegate] about their own personal cancer battles,” he says. “Never, never did I think it was going to happen to me. No one ever does.”
Due to the severity of his diagnosis and treatment received, Jerry took four months of medical leave from the show to recover and focus on his health. It was a difficult time. After two surgeries to treat his cancer, he contracted a severe infection that led to a seven-day hospital stay. Around the same time, a PET/CT scan separately detected early stage thyroid cancer, which led to more surgery to remove his thyroid. Despite these painful setbacks, Jerry was determined to beat the cancer and get back to living his life. And that’s just what he did.
Using His Platform
Upon his return to Extra, Jerry decided to share his story on the show through a video diary, giving audiences an intimate look into his battle. “I am surrounded by a lot of people who aren’t informed on how to take preventive measures to avoid any issues with the sun,” he says about his desire to use his experience to educate the public.
Living in the Present
Today, Jerry’s lifestyle has taken a 180-degree turn, from baking in the sun without protection to applying (and reapplying) sunscreen religiously and avoiding the sun as much as possible. Most importantly, he is vigilant about getting an annual PET scan and his skin checked twice a year to ensure early detection of any cancer recurrence. Luckily, his cancer hasn’t returned.
In between visits to the dermatologist, he is a big believer in self-exams and how helpful they can be. “Check your skin! If you have a hard time doing it yourself, get a friend, a family member or a loved one to do it for you, especially the back area. Just do it!”
In 2013, Jerry moved from California to Florida to be closer to family and became a co-host of WFLA Daytime. “I’ve lived in two very sun-centric places, which makes me more conscious of the adjustments I’ve had to make,” he says. In 2016, Jerry again opened up about his health on air, and shared the story of his open-heart surgery to treat an aortic aneurysm. Thankfully, he made a full recovery.
He continues to be one of the most sought-after entertainment reporters and recently celebrated a major milestone. “I married my partner in March 2018 and couldn’t be happier,” he says. “I’ve never felt better!”