Published: Jan. 29, 2007
Updated: Sept. 17, 2010
I grew up in Maine, where cold weather is the norm for most of the year, so getting a good suntan was a challenge.
In 1984, I moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina. There, the summers were a lot longer. Eventually, I even started going with co-workers to a tanning salon. I visited the salon regularly for a year-and-a-half.
A year later, in July 2004, a mole appeared on the back of my knee, so I decided to go to a local dermatologist to have it examined. The doctor diagnosed it as malignant melanoma.
A week later, I had a wide excision done with a biopsy result of “all borders clear.” The surgeon assured me that I had nothing to worry about anymore.
In August 2005 I became very ill with what I thought was pneumonia. To my surprise, I was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma. The melanoma had metastasized to both of my lungs, my liver, and my lymph nodes, and possibly to my shoulder and leg bones.
I was so lost when first diagnosed. When you hear the words “stage IV cancer,” many things run through your mind -- this could kill me. Needless to say, I was whirling and spinning.
Thank God my local oncologist immediately referred me to Dr. Jared Gollob at Duke. He was like the guy from the TV show Fantasy Island, saying, “Welcome. We have something for you.” And was he right!
Dr. Gollob told me about treatments that we could try. I knew from that first day at Duke that there was plenty of hope for me and lots of advanced technology that other hospitals did not have that could potentially save my life.
Dr. Gollob suggested treatment with Proleukin, which is a man-made version of a protein called Interleukin-2 that is normally used by the immune system to fight off infection.
IL-2 boosts the activity of the immune system and stimulates cells called lymphocytes to seek out and kill cancer cells. It also kills cells infected by viruses. High doses of IL-2 have been shown to cure some patients with advanced melanoma or kidney cancer.
I agreed to the treatment, which was no walk in the park. It was a grueling intense experience with side effects such as nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure, high heart rate, and thrush in my mouth, a white painful fungus-like substance. I was also delirious.
Still, if you asked me if I would do it again, you bet I would -- in a minute!
In the summer of 2006, my scans can back negative, and Dr. Gollob told me that I was in complete remission. Now, I return to Duke for regular follow-up visits, which I welcome because Dr. Gollob and his staff are wonderful.
My parents, husband, daughter, and friends have been instrumental throughout my battle with cancer. I told them in the very beginning, “Hey, no long faces. I am going to beat this. You all have to keep this faith with me.” My family has a great sense of humor, and we found plenty of funny moments to get us through the treatment.
Support groups have been helpful too, and I suggest that anyone battling cancer should join one. A great online group that I visit daily is www.mpip.org for melanoma survivors.
It’s also really important to find a cancer buddy, someone who has been there, someone who knows and can understand your rawest emotions.
Before the diagnosis, I had the average American lifestyle. I was too busy. Now, I live moment-to-moment with a daily appreciation for every aspect of life. I often say to people, “Cancer is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.” But truthfully in another way, it is also the best thing that has ever happened to me.
The “view” that you get from the other side is spectacular! If I could bottle and sell what cancer can show you and teach you about the value of life -- without your having to go through all of the trauma -- I would truly be a billionaire.
The cancer has impacted me in another positive way. I started a melanoma awareness website called Operation Sunshield. I want to be involved in educating young people about melanoma and lobbying politicians to make stronger laws on the tanning industry.
So many people think that melanoma is just skin cancer, but it can kill you before you even know you have it. I shudder every time I drive by a tanning facility.
I am here today after a hard battle with stage IV melanoma and have won the battle. I am not sure about the war yet; that is to be determined.
Every day, I make sure to put sunscreen on right after I get out of the shower, even if I know I probably won’t leave the house. I try to limit my time in the sun, but if I’m not able to, I wear long sleeves, a hat, and sunglasses.
I try as much as possible not to let cancer interfere with my life. My life is all about joy. Now, things that used to irritate me, I merely giggle about.