I was diagnosed with melanoma in October 2014, at the age of 26.
It all started with a bump on my scalp, which nobody could really see because my hair is normally so thick. Sometimes, the bump would catch on a hairbrush, or my headset would rub it uncomfortably at work. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but when I touched that spot, it just felt like a scab.
It never crossed my mind that it might be cancer.
One day, my husband was playing with my hair and he felt the bump, too. He said it looked like an infected mole and that I should get it examined. By this time, I had a gut feeling that something was wrong, but I didn’t want to face it just yet, so I hid the bump for a few more months.
Finally, I went to my sister’s dermatologist in San Antonio. He looked at the bump and performed a biopsy. The results showed it was melanoma.
Melanoma diagnosis leads to MD Anderson
I don’t even know if there’s a word to describe how terrified I was when I found out.
The news came on a Friday, a week before my son turned 5, and just five months after losing my father to colorectal cancer at age 56. I will never forget the fear and hurt I felt. But I was determined to show my children that with faith and courage, you can conquer anything. So I went to a local oncologist.
He wasn’t very encouraging. He also didn’t offer any new treatments or mention clinical trials. My husband and I talked it over and decided he wasn’t right for us. We also wanted a second opinion. I got an appointment at MD Anderson for the following week.
Melanoma treatment begins
When I met with Isabella Glitza-Oliva, M.D., at MD Anderson, I knew immediately that we had made the right decision. She makes you feel so special, and every time she looks at me, I can see that she truly cares. I don’t think I would have had the strength to keep fighting if it wasn’t for her to remind me of the bigger picture. She is just so positive.
Dr. Glitza-Oliva performed additional tests to properly stage my melanoma. It was stage III. Based on that, she recommended surgery, followed by radiation and adjuvant therapy.
On Oct. 21, 2014, the bump on my scalp was surgically removed, along with 17 lymph nodes in my neck. The good news was the melanoma had not spread to my brain. The bad news was that 12 out of those 17 lymph nodes showed evidence of melanoma.
After the surgery, Dr. Glitza-Oliva worked with a doctor in San Antonio to deliver my treatment closer to home, so I wouldn’t have to be away from my kids very much. I also underwent three rounds of radiation there. By April 2015, I had finished my treatment and the cancer was in remission.
Immunotherapy clinical trial puts melanoma into remission again
Unfortunately, the melanoma didn’t stay gone. By April 2016, scans showed it had returned. It had also spread to my breast and ovaries.
I felt the same fear and hurt as I had before, but this time I also had the confidence Dr. Glitza-Oliva had given me. She asked me to consider a Phase I immunotherapy clinical trial under Patrick Hwu, M.D., after I tested positive for a BRAF mutation, and I agreed.
I started taking a new immunotherapy drug called MPDL3280A (also known as atezolizumab) in April, along with two other chemo drugs: vemurafenib and cobimetinib. I get an IV infusion of the first drug every two weeks. The other two I take as pills every day.
After only three months on this protocol, I received great news: there is no remaining evidence of cancer. And I am so grateful.
Advice for other melanoma survivors: don’t give up
If I could tell other melanoma survivors one thing, it would be, “Don’t give up.” When you lose hope, you lose joy. You’re going to have good days and bad days, and it’s OK to throw a pity party every now and then. You just have to remember to pick yourself back up.
The truth is that having cancer is a battle. And though winning may seem impossible, it isn't. Every day is a chance to create a memory and to love a little more. I don't know what the end result of my own journey will be, but I do know that with MD Anderson by my side, I am already a survivor.