Surviving Melanoma Skin Cancer

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and I thought it was quite fitting to have a guest blogger share her story of being diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer in May of 2011. Ironic, huh?th

INTRO: As some of you may or may not know, my mother was diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer in May 2011 only a week or so before my wedding. Initially they diagnosed her as being stage 4 which is the worst kind. We were all shocked, devastated and fearful for her prognosis.

Melanoma cancer forms when there is damage to skill cells, which is most commonly caused by ultraviolet radiation or excess sunshine or tanning beds, which in turn causes mutations that lead to the skin cells multiplying rapidly which then form malignant tumors. These tumors originate in the basal layer of the epidermis known as the pigment-producing melanocytes. Melanoma typically resemble moles while others develop from moles and they are often times black or brown but have been known to be purple, red, pink, blue or white.

According to skincancer.org, melanoma kills approximately 9,940 people in the US annually. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 135,000 new cases are diagnosed in the US each year. Of those, they go on to say that an estimated 73,870 of these will be invasive melanoma with about 31,200 in women and 42,670 in men.

If melanoma is caught and treated quickly it is oftentimes curable. If you notice an unusual spot on your body resembling a mole or if it appears an odd color, visit your dermatologist or family doctor immediately.

Here is a personal story of survival from my mother, Adele B.

Nobody ever thinks it will happen to them.  Cancer doesn’t run in my family. I’m healthy.  My family gets moles…end of story.

I’d had a mole on my right shoulder blade for years and never gave it another thought.  Then in about 2009 my girls started suggesting I get it checked out, that it looked different.  It was along my bra strap line…I figured it got rubbed sore…no big deal.  Life went on but my girls kept making the suggestion and they became relentless.  I was planning a relocation to Florida in early 2011 and didn’t want tied up by a visit to the doctor and decided that I would see one when I got moved.

I moved to Florida in April of 2011 and on April 30th went to a doctor who proceeded to take a punch biopsy of the mole.  The sample was received by the lab later that day and on May 4th the doctor called me and asked me to come in that day for a consult.  My heart dropped and I already knew what news I would receive.  At the office I was handed my lab results and the doctor began to explain them to me.  I had been diagnosed with Stage IV Malignant Melanoma. Stage IV refers to the depth which was 3.3MM and malignant means dangerous, and deadly.  In other words, it was a deep potentially fatal cancer of the skin. There is a difference between melanoma and skin cancer.  Skin cancer stays on the surface of the skin and is non-invasive, not fatal.  Melanoma invades the depth of the skin and has the potential to be fatal beyond Stage IV when it reaches organs called metastatic.  My cancer had been found, hopefully, just in time.

I was immediately sent to a surgeon and the procedure was scheduled for June 6th.  While I was being prepped for surgery the doctor who would be performing the procedure to remove the mole came in to talk with me.  A lymphoscintigraphy had been performed also that morning where a dye is injected into the skin at the site of the mole to see which side of my body the fluid flowed into the lymph system.  They determined it was flowing right and the doctor wanted my permission to also do an exploratory procedure to remove several nodes on my right to rule out lymphatic involvement in the cancer.  I approved it in spite of the potential future health problem called lymphedema in which fluid can back up in the right limb and cause extreme swelling.  This was a matter of life and death, literally.  Six nodes were removed under my right arm.  Recovery from the two surgical sites was painful and there was massive bruising.

One week later at my follow up appointment with the surgeon, I was told that of the six nodes removed, one was full of cancer and now I was referred to a oncologist to address the need for chemotherapy.  Had I not approved the removal of the nodes, the cancer would have gone undetected and fatality would have occurred inside of one year.

I began chemotherapy in August of 2011.  My term was one year.  For the first month I received 5 treatments per week which lasted 5 hours each.  These were done at the hospital.  This started my year of feeling sick.  I proceeded to have nonstop headaches and I literally had headaches 365 days in a row.  Along with the headaches, I started to experience hair loss, weight loss, nausea, extreme tiredness and weakness, and began experiencing memory and concentration problems.  I felt like I was in a constant sickly fog and all I wanted to do was curl up in the dark and sleep.  After the first month, my treatments continued at a rate of 3 times per week and that went on for the remaining 11 months.  My hair thinned and starting shedding in huge amounts in the shower.  I could see my scalp in spots.  I took preventative action and got it cut very short to take the weight off what was left and I began to wear head scarves.  That was my fashion statement for the next 18 months.

During this time, I continued to work because I needed to support myself.  I had just gone through the trauma of a divorce as well as a serious car accident all prior to the cancer.  I was along in Florida.  My girls, in the midwest, wanted me to move home but I had started treatment in Florida, this is where I wanted to be, and what place better than the experienced doctors in the sunshine state to cure my cancer?  My coworkers quickly stepped in and became the family I didn’t have and they covered shifts for me and floated me through the sickest and most stressful year of my life.  I learned to smile in all circumstances often when I felt like death itself and I was told later by many that they couldn’t even tell how bad I was actually feeling.  I adopted the life standard that I wouldn’t have bad days.  I would only have good days, those when I wasn’t feeling very well, and great days.  Needless to say, I never succumbed to the negativity of wallowing in self pity and whining about bad days but I surely did appreciate it when I had great days!

I lost my taste and tolerance for coffee and the kicker is, I was a barista working for Starbucks!  I ate a lot of saltine crackers and consumed large amounts of ginger ale.  Weekly lab work showed a steady decline in white blood cells which made me very susceptible to every germ that floated past.  I was also dehydrated most of the time and my weight dropped from a healthy 125 to 115.  My cheek bones and jaw line were prominent as were the dark circle under my eyes.  There was nothing I could do about any of that and my priorities were to continuing working and to KICK CANCER’S ASS.  I did manage to begin online college classes doing chemo.  Doing this online allowed me the flexibility of schedule and not having to drive to a campus.  I also had access to audible text books so many times when my head was aching too badly to read, I could listen to my assigned readings.  It was working college my way and I had a very full schedule for such a sick person.

But I made it through.  In August of 2012 my chemo came to a close and my PET scan showed no signs on cancer left in my body.  I had won!  My white blood cell count as well as my red blood cell count had reached a near critical level but chemo was over and recovery began with a diligent course of nutritious foods, vitamins, and supplements.  As some of the sayings go, I fought like a chick and I beat cancer’s ass!

It was another 6 months until I had the nerve to finally reveal what was left of my hair.  It was short and thin but I had never lost it all.  My eyebrows got thin and actually, still have not fully recovered.  Under the care of a hairdresser experienced with post chemo patients, my hair recovered much quicker than expected.  During chemo I was hoping that when it came back in that it would be red and curly.  I got curly and my hairdresser helps with the red.  My blood counts slowly crept back up into the normal but low range.  My weight has returned to a normal 125.

It is soon going to be 3 years since chemo ended for me and I am still under the watchful eye of my oncologist and a dermatologist and likely will be for life. Melanoma is one of those petulant pests that likes to make a repeat performance.  Lasting effect of the chemo are noticeable.  My skin doesn’t heal quickly from cuts and burns and I usually scar.  My ophthalmologist tells me that chemo aged my eyes 10 years.  I never had the best eyes anyway but now I wear bifocals.  I am supposed to stay out of the sun or use an impenetrable sunscreen and sun protective clothing.

Did the sun cause my cancer?  No one knows for sure.  Sun is blamed for many cases of skin and melanoma cancer and I had my share of sunburns in my life so maybe or maybe not.  Stress is also being recognized lately as a factor in developing cancer as well as nutritional and health factors, and life choices. Candida overgrowth has been linked to cancer cell development in recent studies.  My personal thoughts are that stress caused mine.  Cancer changed my attitude about life and my major in college is, since I am still plugging away towards my degree, Healthy Lifestyles Coaching.  I am alive and as a reward I have seen two of my three daughter’s graduate college and get married, the birth of my second grandchild, and I will see my third daughter marry as well. Cancer sucks but life is good.  Do your best to prevent it, but stop and smell the roses along the way.
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