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Melanoma Placed Athlete in Run of His Life

CancerWise - May 2007

    
By Dawn Dorsey

When Eric Overton was in treatment for an exceedingly rare type of melanoma, he envisioned he was running a marathon.

Eric Overton

Blood tests were mile markers, and major events, like CT scans, were bagpipers who might greet him on the route.

“Breaking down something large and scary into something I’d seen before made the process a lot more manageable mentally,” he says. “And much as with running a marathon, a lot of the process of getting through chemo is being able to play the mental game.”

As an experienced marathon runner and competitive swimmer, Overton is trained to endure over the long haul, and he has needed that skill in his fight against cancer.

Misdiagnosis delayed treatment

In 1999, when Overton was 34 years old, he noticed a pea-size lump just above his elbow. There was no mole or telltale mark on his skin. His primary care physician performed a fine-needle biopsy, but the results were inconclusive.

Because Overton was young, active and healthy, his doctor suspected a bacterial infection and prescribed antibiotics, which made the lump go away. Over the next two years, this scenario was repeated several times. However, each time the growth came back a little larger. Finally, Overton elected to have it removed in an outpatient procedure.

Diagnosis is melanoma

When he woke up in the recovery room, Overton first noticed the incision; then he noticed the lump was still there. He immediately sensed something was wrong. The physician had biopsied the growth but had not removed it. Two days later, Overton was told he had regressed primary melanoma.

The physician said Overton probably had the aggressive cancer at least three years before, when the lump first appeared.

“He was baffled that I had survived a melanoma that had spread to several lymph nodes with no symptoms for so long,” Overton says. “He said, ‘This is the strangest thing I've seen in 20 years of medical practice.’ Those are words you don’t really want to hear from your doctor.”

Treatment marathon begins

Ultimately, Overton was referred to M. D. Anderson, where he had surgery to remove the growth and cancerous lymph nodes around it, as well as 19 questionable lymph nodes in his armpit. When the armpit nodes tested negative for cancer, he was deemed to be in remission, even though he had been diagnosed only three weeks before.

Some M. D. Anderson physicians questioned the diagnosis of regressed primary melanoma and believed it to be clear cell sarcoma of soft tissue, a type of cancer so rare that a standard treatment protocol does not exist other than surgery to remove the tumor and lymph nodes. Ultimately, his physicians decided the best course of action was to treat the tumor as a melanoma.

After five weeks of radiation at M. D. Anderson, Overton was able to return home to Austin. During 13 months of intense chemotherapy, he had a couple of infections that landed him in the hospital. All through treatment, Overton pushed himself to compete in races and continued working as a video designer.

“As long as I could still feel my feet moving, I knew I was living,” Overton says. “The pain caused by pushing your body is a good kind of pain that I like to have.”

He’s back in the race

When he finished treatment in December 2003, Overton had two goals: to get quickly back in a race – a 5K in February 2004 – and to run a marathon within a year. In December 2004, almost a year after finishing chemotherapy, he ran in the Honolulu Marathon, as a member of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Team in Training Program, a marathon and triathlon training organization in which he continues to be involved. Since then, he has participated in numerous races.

Today, Overton finds plenty of time to swim, run and pursue flying lessons. He’s also building a World War I-style biplane.

“I don’t think about the cancer so much; it’s not a big, black cloud hanging over me,” he says. “But I have a heightened awareness of the value of time, and I am more aware of mortality than before.”

He also knows he can’t do everything himself. “Cancer is one of the best things that ever happened to me. It made me look at myself when my body was broken down and see what it’s like to depend on others.”

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center