How a melanoma immunotherapy clinical trial helped me
I can’t quite explain what it feels like to get the cancer call. You can’t describe it unless you’ve heard those words.
I don’t think that changes whether it’s your first or, in my case, third diagnosis. When I learned that I had stage III melanoma last January, my first thoughts were: how do I have stage III cancer? I eat more veggies before 10 a.m. than most eat all day. I teach cycling classes and exercise six days a week. I take pride in living a strong, healthy life. How could I have cancer again?
My first two melanoma diagnoses
My first cancer diagnosis came about five years ago. My son and I had just moved to Austin when I was diagnosed with stage II melanoma on my leg.
After two surgeries, a sentinel node biopsy and a report of clear margins, I was directed to get a skin check every three months. I thought, “Easy. I can do that.”
Two years later, in June 2013, a new mole appeared on my shoulder. I called my dermatologist immediately.
That time, it was stage I melanoma. I thought, “Round two: here we go. I got this … again.”
The cancerous area was removed, and 25 stitches later, I received a clear pathology report. I was ready to continue living a happy life.
My “big cancer”
But a year-and-a-half later, I found a swollen node under my arm on Thanksgiving. I immediately texted my dermatologist.
We proceeded with a needle biopsy. Soon after, my surgeon called. This time, the cancer wasn’t outside my skin, but inside, in the nodes under my right arm. It was stage III melanoma.
The “big cancer,” as I call it, originated from my second melanoma in 2013. Even at that early stage, it was so aggressive that it traveled into my lymph nodes where it stayed silent for almost two years. I was told to speak to an oncologist immediately.
Choosing MD Anderson for my melanoma treatment
I decided quickly to educate myself, ask a lot of questions and build the best plan I could. I wanted to be in the best cancer center in the world and to have access to the latest melanoma treatment advancements. So, I scheduled an appointment at MD Anderson.
From day one, my experience was remarkable. My oncology team, led by Rodabe Amaria, M.D., and I made a plan for beating this “silent killer.” Shortly thereafter, I underwent surgery under the care of Merrick Ross, M.D.
I then enrolled in an immunotherapy vaccine clinical trial, which taught my body to recognize and fight against melanoma. When Dr. Amaria suggested immunotherapy, I couldn’t wait to start the trial. I already knew about the advances made in melanoma immunotherapy over the past 30 years, thanks to the work of Jim Allison, Ph.D., chair of Immunology at MD Anderson. Based on the type of melanoma I had, this particular trial made perfect sense for me.
And it proved to be exactly what I needed. Over time, the immunotherapy worked, gradually shrinking and ultimately eliminating the melanoma.
Giving back to help others
Today, I’m cancer-free, no longer in treatment and grateful to have my life back. If I hadn’t acted right away, my story would be much different.
As busy adults, we don’t always prioritize our health. But I hope my story will help others understand why they shouldn’t put off seeing a doctor. My cancer was doubling in size every 10 days, and I hate to think about what would have happened if I’d put myself on the backburner, delayed making phone calls for doctor’s appointments, or been unwilling to try an immunotherapy clinical trial.
I’m now ready to keep fighting and give to those who can’t through inspiration, melanoma awareness and raising funds for cancer research.
As I tell other patients, it’s important to explore all of your options. Ask a lot of questions, and don’t be afraid of the possibilities of what a clinical trial has to offer.
If I can educate one person or family, or inspire them to keep fighting, then this journey has been worth it.